advaita regards brahman as the sole absolute reality, pAramArthika. The question arises as to the status of the world and the jIva, the individual soul that are encountered by all of us. These are accorded a less real or relatively real status known as vyAvahArika. According to advaita the vyAvahArika is due to ignorance. To the question ‘whose ignorance?’ the shastra answers that as the very appearance of the vyAvahArika is due to ignorance, the ignorance, avidyA, has to be connected to brahman which is the sole existing principle before the arrival of the vyAvahArika. Thus goes a verse:
ashrayatva-viShayatva-bhAginI nirvibhAga-chitireva kevalA |
pUrva-siddha-tamaso hi pashchimo nAshrayo bhavati nApi gocharaH ||
[The locus and object of avidyA is the undifferentiated pure Consciousness alone. The reason: the prior-existing ignorance cannot have for its locus and object the later-arrived jIva, individual soul.]
A question arises as to how brahman, the Absolute, beyond the relative plane, could be the locus of avidyA. This question is normally raised by the theistic vedAntins for whom there is no concept of nirguNa brahman. Their highest principle is saguNa alone. advaitins are one with the objectors in a partial way. In advaita the concept of Ishvara is within the relative plane and Ishvara is held as the principle that is not tainted by ignorance the way the jIva is. Ishvara is sarvaj~na, the all-knower, the benefactor, the guru who espouses the knowledge leading to liberation in the jIva-s. So, advaita does not ascribe ignorance to Ishvara and keeps Ishvara free of the taint of ignorance. avidyA is ascribed to nirguNa brahman alone. This ascribing is faultless as it is only a temporary arrangement to explain the creation of the vyAvahArika. In advaita, avidyA is a deliberate superimposition, an adhyAropa. Such being the case, there is no defect of brahman being really affected by this superimposed avidyA. And brahman can’t be; It is second-less. Once the need for such an arrangement is transcended by the aspirant, this arrangement is dropped, apavAda.
In the now well-known clay-pot example, we can see the above clearly. The pot is ‘personified’ and made to think: I am a finite pot, fragile, etc. This is due to its ignorance of its true clay- nature. But is the ignorance really of the pot? No. The pot itself could not have come unless from clay. So how can the ignorance be located in the pot which has come only ‘due’ to ignorance? The proper way to explain this would be: The clay itself, due to ignorance, appears as the finite pot. There is a famous saying in the vedAnta shastra:
brahmaiva sva-avidyayA badhyata iva, brahmaiva sva-vidyayA muchyata iva.
[brahman Itself, owing to ignorance of Its own self appears to be bound (in saMsAra). brahman Itself, as a result of knowledge of Its own self, appears to be released from saMsAra.]
In advaita both bondage and release are in the plane of ignorance alone. So it is perfectly possible and correct to say: brahman is as though enveloped by avidyA as long as vyavahAra is experienced to be true. The ‘as though’ is crucial in this expression. It should be properly understood and used. advaitins take care to do this.
There is no defect in saying this because advaita holds the individual soul, jIva as identical with brahman. The two are not different; there are not two; only the One brahman appears as the other, jIva. In the gItA, the Lord says:
mamiva amsho jIva loke jeevabhUtaH sanAtanaH (15th chapter)
[It is My own part, as it were, that has become the eternal jIva]
The AchArya comments: Just as the reflection, of the sun, appearing in a water medium, is as though a part of the sun, upon the disappearance of the reflecting water medium, becomes inseparably one with the Sun. Again, just as the space-in-a-pot being a ‘segment’ of the all-pervading space becomes inseparably one with the whole-space upon the destruction of the pot (upAdhi), so too the jIva appears as finite only due to avidyA-created upAdhi-s. There is no defect in this explanation as the truly indivisible brahman is not really getting divided to become the jIva. We have extensively dealt with this concept in the 13th chapter.
Thus we have the approval of AchArya Shankara to the explanation of the vyAvahArika as an appearance due to brahman being ‘subject’ to avidyA. There is no problem with this explanation for, after all, as the AchArya points out, upon the eradication of avidyA, the jIva is known to be none other than brahman.
While the above mentioning of avidyA ‘located’ in brahman is for the theoretical explanation of the appearance of the vyAvahArika, the practical utility of the concept is appreciated only when we recognize that it is the jIva who is undergoing saMsAra that has to work to remove the ignorance. In this context alone it would be proper to say that the jIva is the locus of avidyA, for it is for him alone that avidyA and its effects are experienced and the onus of the eradication of avidyA along with its effects lies upon him alone.
Thus to say that brahman is ‘enveloped’ by avidyA is perfectly alright in advaita vedAnta which has the approval of AchArya Shankara and all the advaita AchArya-s of the tradition. The 13th chapter of the gItA bhAShya contains enough explanations to appreciate this principle.
To sum up, avidyA in advaita is not a real entity, it is an adhyAropa by the shAstra to explain vyavahAra. brahman alone is the sole reality. As a matter of necessity the shastra links up, as it were, brahman and avidyA.