A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 4

Indian Pluralism

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1949 | 186,278 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of ajnana and ego-hood (ahamkara): a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the eighth part in the series called the “controversy between the dualists and the monists”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 8 - Ajñāna and Ego-hood (ahaṃkāra)

The Śaṅkarites hold that, though during dreamless sleep the self-luminous self is present, yet, there being at the time no non-luminous ego, the memory in the waking stage does not refer the experience of the dreamless state to the ego as the self; and the scriptural texts also often speak against the identification of the self with the ego. In the dreamless stage the ego is not manifested; for, had it been manifested, it would have been so remembered.

To this Vyāsa-tīrtha’s reply is that it cannot be asserted that in dreamless sleep the self is manifested, whereas the ego is not: for the opponents have not been able to prove that the ego is something different from the self-luminous self. It is also wrong to say that the later memory of sleeping does not refer to the ego; for all memory refers to the self as the ego, and nothing else. Even when one says “I slept,” he uses the “I,” the ego with which his self is associated. The Vivaraṇa also says that recognition is attributed to the self as associated with the antaḥkaraṇa. If the ego were not experienced as the experiencer of the dreamless state, then one might equally well have entertained doubts regarding it. It is wrong also to suppose that the entity found in all perceivers is the self, and not the ego; for, howsoever it may be conceived, it is the ego that is the object of all such reference, and even the Vivaraṇa says that the self, being one in all its experiences in separate individuals, is distinct only through its association with the ego. It cannot be said that reference to the ego is not to the ego-part, but to the self-luminous entity underlying it; for, if this be admitted, then even ignorance would have to be associated with that entity. The ajñāna also appears in experiences as associated with the ego, and the ego appears not as the sleeper, but as the experiencer of the waking state, and it recognizes itself as the sleeper. Nor can it be denied that in the waking state one remembers that the ego during the sleep has experienced pleasure; so it must be admitted that in dreamless sleep it is the ego that experiences the sleep. The fact that one remembers his dream-experience as belonging to the same person who did some action before and who is now remembering shows that the action before the dream-experience and the present act of remembering belong to the same identical ego, the experiencer; even if the underlying experiencer be regarded as pure consciousness, yet so far as concerns the phenomenal experiencer and the person that remembers it is the ego to which all experience may be said to belong. Moreover, if the ego is supposed to be dissolved in the dreamless sleep, then even the bio-motor functions of the body, which are supposed to belong to the ego, would be impossible. Moreover, since our self-love and our emotion for self-preservation are always directed towards the self as the ego, it must be admitted that the experiences of the permanent self refer to the ego-substratum.

It cannot be urged that this is possible by an illusory imposition of the ego on the pure self; for this would involve a vicious circle, since, unless the pure self is known as the supreme object of love, there cannot be any imposition upon it and, unless there is an imposition of the ego upon it, the self cannot be known as the supreme object of love. Moreover, there is no experience of a self-love which could be supposed to be directed to pure consciousness and not to the phenomenal self. Similar criticisms may also be made in the case of the explanation of such experience as “I shall attain the ultimate bliss,” as based on the imposition of the ego upon the pure self[1]. Moreover, if the notion of the ego has as a constituent the mind, then such experience as “my mind,” where the mind and the ego appear as different, would be impossible, and the experience of mind and ego would be the same. Moreover, all illusions have two constituents—the basis and the appearance; but in the ego no such two parts are experienced. It is also wrong to suppose that in such experiences as “I appear to myself” (ahaṃ sphurāmi) the appearance in consciousness is the basis and “appear to myself” is the illusory appearance[2]. For, the appearance (sphuraṇa) of the ego being different from the ego-substance (aham-artha), there is no appearance of identity between them such that the former may be regarded as the basis of the latter. The ego is, thus, directly perceived by intuitive experience as the self, and inference also points to the same; for, if the ego is enjoined to go through the ethical and other purificatory duties, and if it is the same that is spoken of as being liberated, it stands to reason that it is the ego substance that is- the self. Vyāsa-tīrtha further adduces a number of scriptural texts in confirmation of this view.

To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that, if the ego-substance had been present in sleep, then its qualities, such as desire, wish, etc., would have been perceived. A substance which has qualities can be known only through such qualities: otherwise a jug with qualities would not require to be known through the latter. It is true, no doubt, that we affirm the existence of the jug in the interval between the destruction of its qualities of one order and the production of qualities of another order. But this does not go against the main thesis; for though a qualified thing requires to be known through its qualities, it does not follow that a qualityless thing should not be knowable. So it must be admitted that, since no qualities are apprehended during deep sleep, it is the qualityless self that is known in deep sleep; if it had not been perceived, there would have been no memory of it in the waking state. Moreover, during dreamless sleep the self is perceived as supporting ignorance (as is testified by the experience “I did not know anything in deep sleep”), and hence it is different from the ego. The memory refers to pure consciousness as supporting ajñāna, and not to the ego. It is true that the Vivaraṇa holds that recognition (pratyabhijñā) can be possible only of pure consciousness as associated with the antaḥkaraṇa; but, though this is so, it does not follow that the apprehension (abhijñā) of the pure consciousness should also be associated with the antaḥkaraṇa. In the dreamless state, therefore, we have no recognition of pure consciousness, but an intuition of it. In the waking stage we have recognition not of the pure consciousness, but of the consciousness as associated with ajñāna.

The emphasis of the statement of the Vivaraṇa is not on the fact that for recognition it is indispensable that the pure consciousness should be associated with the antaḥkaraṇa, but on the fact that it should not be absolutely devoid of the association of any conditioning factor; and such a factor is found in its association with ajñāna, whereby recognition is possible. The memory of the ego as the experiencer during dreams takes place through the intuition of the self during dreamless sleep and the imposition of the identity of the ego therewith. It is the memory of such an illusory imposition that is responsible for the apparent experience of the ego during dreamless sleep. It is wrong to suggest that there is a vicious circle; for it is only when the ego-substratum is known to be different from the self that there can be illusory identity and it is only when there is illusory identity that, as the ego does not appear during dreamless state, the belief that it is different is enforced. For it is only when the self is known to be different from the ego that there can be a negation of the possibility of the memory of the self as the ego. Vyāsa-tīrtha says that, the ego-substratum (aham-artha) and the ego-sense (ahaṃ-kāra) being two different entities, the manifestation of the former does not involve as a necessary consequence the manifestation of the latter, and this explains how in the dreamless state, though the ego-substratum is manifested, yet the ego-sense is absent. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that the ego-substratum and the ego-sense are co-existent and thus, wherever the ego-substratum is present, there ought also to be the ego-sense, and, if during the dreamless state the ego-substratum was manifested, then the ego-sense should also have been manifested with it. He adds that the same objection cannot be made in regard to the manifestation of the self during the dreamless state; for the self is not associated with the ego-sense. Vyāsa-tīrtha has said that, just as the Śaṅkarites explain the manifestation of ajñāna in the dreamless state as having reference to objective entities only, and not to the pure sāfaz-consciousness (as it could not without contradiction be manifested and be at the same time the object of ajñāna), so the manifestation of the ego-substratum is not contradicted by the association with ajñāna, but may be regarded as having reference to extraneous objective entities. To this Madusūdana’s reply is that there is no contradiction in the appearance of ajñāna in the sākṣi-consciousness, as it may be in the case of its association with the ego-substratum, and so the explanation of Vyāsa-tīrtha is quite uncalled-for.

Madhusūdana says that the ego-substratum may be inferred to be something different from the self, because, like the body, it is contemplated by our ego-perception or our perception as “I.” If it is held that even the self is contemplated by the ego-perception, the reply is that the self, in the sense in which it is contemplated by the ego-perception, is really a n'on-self. In its essential nature the self underlying the ego-perception cannot be contemplated by the ego-perception. Again, the view of Vyāsa-tīrtha, that the fact of our feeling ourselves to be the supreme end of happiness shows that supreme happiness belongs to the ego-substratum, is criticized by the Śaṅkarites to the effect that the supreme happiness, really belonging to the self, is illusorily through a mistaken identity imposed upon the ego-substratum. This criticism, again, is criticized by the Madhvas on the ground that such an explanation involves a vicious circle, because only when the supremely happy nature of the ego-substratum is known does the illusory notion of identity present itself; and that only when the illusory notion of identity is present is there awareness of that supremely happy nature. To this, again, the reply of Madhusūdana is that the experiencing of the dreamless stage manifests the self as pure consciousness, while the ego-substratum is unmanifest; thus through the testimony of deep sleep the ego-substratum is known to be different from the self. The ego-substratum is by itself unmanifested, and its manifestation is always through the illusory imposition of identity with the pure self. What Madhusūdana wishes to assert is that the supremely happy experience during deep sleep is a manifestation of the pure self and not of the ego-substratum; the ego is felt to be happy only through identification with the pure self, to which alone belongs the happiness in deep sleep.

The objection of Vyāsa-tīrtha is that in emancipation the self is not felt as the supreme end of happiness, because there is no duality there, but, if such an experience be the nature of the self, then with its destruction there will be destruction of the self in emancipation. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that the experience of the self as the end of supreme happiness is only a conditional manifestation, and therefore the removal of this condition in emancipation cannot threaten the self with destruction.

It is urged by the Śaṅkarites that the agency (kartṛtva) belonging to the mind is illusorily imposed upon the self, whereby it illusorily appears as agent, though its real changeless nature is perceived in deep sleep.

Vyāsa-tīrtha replies that there are two specific illustrations of illusion, viz.,

  1. where the red-colour of the japā-flower is reflected on a crystal, whereby the white crystal appears as red,
  2. and where a rope appears as a dreadful snake.

Now, following the analogy of the first case, one would expect that the mind would separately be known as an agent, just as the japā-flower is known to be red, and the pure consciousness also should appear as agent, just as the crystal appears as red. If the reply is that the illusion is not of the first type, since it is not the quality of the mind that is reflected, but the mind with its qualities is itself imposed, there it would be of the second type. But even then the snake itself appears as dreadful, following which analogy one would expect that the mind should appear independently as agent and the pure consciousness also should appear so.

Madhusūdana in reply says that he accepts the second type of illusion, and admits that agency parallel to the agency of the mind appears in the pure consciousness and then these two numerically different entities are falsely identified through the identification of the mind with the pure consciousness. As a matter of fact, however, the illusion of the agency of the mind in the pure consciousness may be regarded as being of both the above two types. The latter type, as nirupādhika, in which that which is imposed (adhyasyamāna, e.g., the dreadful snake), being of the Vyāvahārika type of existence, has a greater reality than the illusory knowledge (the rope-snake which has only a prātibhāsika existence), as has been shown above. It may also be interpreted as being a sopādhika illusion of the first type, since both that which is imposed (the agency of the mind) and that which is the illusory appearance (the agency of the pure consciousness) have the same order of existence, viz., Vyāvahārika, which we know to be the condition of a sopādhika illusion as between japā-flower and crystal.

Madhusūdana points out that ego-hood (ahaṃ-kāra) is made up of two constituents,

  1. the underlying pure consciousness,
  2. and the material part as the agent.

The second part really belongs to the mind, and it is only through a false identification of it with the pure consciousness that the experience “I am the doer, the agent” is possible: so the experience of agency takes place only through such an illusion. So the objection that, if the agency interest in the mind is transferred to the ego-substratum, then the self cannot be regarded as being subject to bondage and liberation, is invalid; for the so-called ego-substratum is itself the result of the false identification of the mind and its associated agency with the pure consciousness. Vyāsa-tīrtha had pointed out that in arguing with Sāṃkhyists the Śaṅkarites had repudiated (Brahma-sūtra, II. 3. 33) the agency of the buddhi. To this Madhusūdana’s reply is that what the Śaṅkarites asserted was that the consciousness was both the agent and the enjoyer of experiences, and not the latter alone, as the Sāṃkhyists had declared; they had neither repudiated the agency of buddhi nor asserted the agency of pure consciousness.

Vyāsa-tīrtha says that in such experience as “I am a Brahmin” the identification is of the Brahmin body with the “I” and this “I” according to the Śaṅkarites is different from the self; if that were so, it would be wrong to suppose that the above experience is due to a false identification of the body with the “self”; for the “I” is not admitted by the Śaṅkarites to be the self. Again, if the identity of the body and the self be directly perceived, and if there is no valid inference to contradict it, it is difficult to assert that they are different. Moreover, the body and the senses are known to be different from one another and cannot both be regarded as identical with the self. Again, if all difference is illusion, the notion of identity, which is the opposite of “difference,” will necessarily be true. Moreover, as a matter of fact, no such illusory identification of the body and the self ever takes place; for, not to speak of men, even animals know that they are different from their bodies and that, though their bodies change from birth to birth, they themselves remain the same all through.

Madhusūdana says in reply that the false identification of the body and the ego is possible because ego has for a constituent the pure consciousness, and thus the false identification with it means identification with consciousness. Moreover, it is wrong to say that, if perception reveals the identity between the body and self, then it is not possible through inference to establish their difference. For it is well known (e.g., in the case of the apparent size of the moon in perception) that the results of perception are often revised by well-established inference and authority. Again, the objection that, all difference being illusory, the opposite of difference, viz., false identification, must be true, is wrong; for in the discussion on the nature of falsehood it has been shown that both the positive and the negative may at the same time be illusory. Moreover, the false identification of the body with the self can be dispelled in our ordinary life by inference and the testimony of scriptural texts, whereas the illusion of all difference can be dispelled only by the last cognitive state preceding emancipation. Madhusūdana holds that all explanation in regard to the connection of the body with the self is unavailing, and the only explanation that seems to be cogent is that the body is an illusory imposition upon the self.

Footnotes and references:


Nyāyāmṛta, p. 283(a).


iha tu sphuraṇamātram adhiṣṭḥānamiti sphurāmīty eva dhīr iti cen na.
p. 38(a).

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