Memory and Superimposition

Question: What is the relationship between memory and superimposition (adhyAsa)? In the metaphor of rope and snake, we say that we fail to see the snake clearly, because of inadequate light – there is partial knowledge and partial ignorance. When we superimpose a snake on the rope, we are drawing on fear and memory. We must have seen a snake (or image of one in a film or book) before in order to be able to mistake the rope for one. Similarly, we mistake brahman for the body and the world etc.

But what about a baby or someone who has no memory as a result of brain damage? Is there still superimposition in this case?


Answer: We have to bear in mind that the example of a rope being mistaken for a snake is an analogy, and as is the case with any analogy, the example is imperfect. In the example, the snake image is based on a previous experience of the mistaken perceiver.


In terms of mistaking the body-mind-sense complex as well as the innumerable other objects that constitute the manifest universe for Brahman, however, we are dealing with something a little bit different. Whereas in order to mistake the rope for a snake, one must have previously seen a snake, the projection of the apparent reality (i.e., the manifest universe in both its subtle and gross aspects) is not based on experiential memory, but rather results from the mind’s ability to recognize the “cosmic blueprints” that abide in dormant form in the Macrocosmic Causal Body, which is personified as Isvara, and are made manifest through the conditioning that maya upadhi, the limiting adjunct of causal matter, puts upon Brahman. That is, the mind is an instrument that is designed or a mechanism that is “programmed” to recognize these forms and, thus, is able to discern their apparent existence within the cosmic soup of pure potentiality (i.e., the unmanifest realm or “mind of God,” if you will) from the data it receives via the perceptive instruments/organs.


Another way of looking at it is that all forms are part of vyavaharika satyam, the transactional reality, which is Isvara shrishti (i.e., God’s creation or the projected consequence of Brahman conditioned by maya upadhi). Thus, it’s not that the objects don’t exist. They are simply not real. By analogy, a clay pot exists, but it is nothing other than clay and, thus, its existence is entirely dependent on clay. Similarly, the myriad forms of the manifest universe exist, but they are nothing other than Brahman and, thus, their existence is entirely dependent on Brahman. As these forms have no self-nature independent of Brahman, they cannot be said to be real, for that which is real is by definition that which cannot be negated or resolved into any substrate more fundamental than itself.


In this regard, then, the objects seen by the baby or the brain-damaged individual have a tangible existence within apparent reality, and so both the baby and the brain-damaged individual are capable of seeing what is appearing before their eyes by virtue of their perceptive organs and not by means of memories that are superimposed on Brahman.


Remember also that Brahman is pure, limitless, attributeless awareness. Whereas in the analogy of the rope being mistaken for a snake, the form of the rope provides the basis for the projected snake, in the context of the manifest universe, there is no underlying form that is similar in character to that which is superimposed upon it. While the perceptive organs are programmed to integrate sensory data and cohere it into seemingly tangible objects, Brahman is pure awareness in which the manifest universe appears like a hologram due to the avaruna shakti or veiling power and vikshepa shakti or projecting power of maya, which is an inherent aspect of its very own being. So, it is not the case that the baby and the brain-damaged individual are misinterpreting an object. They are simply victims of the conditioning influence of maya, which account for both the projection of the manifest universe and the avidyaor personal ignorance that makes the apparent person take the forms to be real rather than simply apparent or dependent entities whose essential nature is non-dual Brahman.