In Vedanta, it is important to understand the concept of Superimposition (अध्यारोप/अध्यास Adhyaarop/Adhyaas). According to Vedanta, all beings – humans, animals, plants, insects, angles, ghosts – as well as entire universe – space, air, fire, water, earth, sun, moon, galaxies, heaven, hell – are made up of Pure Consciousness and Pure Bliss. In the infinite unchanging ocean of Pure Consciousness-Bliss, waves of various names and forms - as universe and its beings - arise, have their play for a time being, and then merge back into that ocean. If this is the fact of our life and the universe, then why do we experience the universe as an inert object and ourselves separate from each other? The answer, according to Vedanta, is Superimposition.
Superimposition causes us to experience the universe and ourselves as distorted images of Reality; explains Swami Vivekananda:
The world is God and is real, but that is not the world we see; just as we see silver in the mother-of-pearl where it is not. This is what is known as Adhyasa or superimposition, that is, a relative existence dependent upon a real one, as when we recall a scene we have seen; for the time it exists for us, but that existence is not real. Or some say, it is as when we imagine heat in water, which does not belong to it; so really it is something which has been put where it does not belong, "taking the thing for what it is not". We see reality, but distorted by the medium through which we see it.
This is caused due to the 'spiritual ignorance' in all beings; this ignorance has two aspects: universal (माया Maya) and individual (अविद्या Avidya). It acts as a ‘covering’ (आवरण Aavarana) on the Truth and further makes us project distorted views of ourselves and world on the Reality (technically this distortion is called विक्षेप Vikshepa). We find that majority of humanity is at a limited or bound consciousness level – that is the ‘limited daily ego’ or ‘human personality’ – and is not aware of higher Pure Consciousness level. In fact the full experience of this ultimate Reality, it seems, is so rare that most of the humanity is not even aware of the possibility. Most of us live and know our lives only through sense-stimulated-mind; we never even suspect that the ‘mind-senses-body’ – which we take as our daily personality – itself is a sense-organ (of higher Reality/Self/God)!
According to Vedanta, human consciousness is formed by a sort of 'knot' between matter (which is nothing but a wave of Consciousness) and unchanging Pure/Witness Consciousness. Matter has gross and subtle aspects; gross aspect is the physical body and subtle aspect is internal psyche/soul/mind (अन्त:करण Antahkarana). Following diagram tries to explain the situation of human consciousness as described in ‘Drg-Drsya Viveka’, a Vedanta treatise ascribed to Adi Shankaracharya:
This thinking is very deep in us and it is encouraged unconsciously by ourselves and others. Due to this we never even doubt that the truth about ourselves would be anything different. Vedanta says that this way of thinking is the root cause of the ignorance and we should try to rectify the mistake by steadily remembering our true nature. We should stress the Witness aspect or the Pure Consciousness aspect in us and not the separate individuality aspect.
Maya and rise of Phenomenon
But where and when did this ignorance and Superimposition arrive? If we deeply ponder over the matter then we can understand the fallacy of the question itself. In the realm of distorted views and understanding – with innate ignorance blocking our access to Truth – the question itself becomes convoluted. We are asking about a 'point in time' where the ignorance 'started', while 'time' and 'space' – including our limited personalities and everything else – itself is a product of ignorance! This is Maya! Swami Vivekananda puts this as:
Maya – it is a simple statement of facts – what we are and what we see around us.
On relative plane of existence, we can say that the samskaras that we have created ourselves through our thoughts, words and actions for a prolonged period of time - spanning many lives - has created a 'veil' as it were between ourselves and the Truth. Swami Vivekananda says, '... satisfaction in the senses, ... is one of the causes which have spread the veil between truth and ourselves. Devotion to ceremonials, satisfaction in the senses, and forming various theories, have drawn a veil between ourselves and truth.'
Before we venture a little deep into the technicalities of ‘existence’ according to Vedanta, we have to primarily keep in mind that the description given about the origin, sustenance, dissolution etc. of the universe and ourselves, is from the Superimposition point of view. The nature of Truth being unchanging infinitude of Pure Consciousness and Bliss, no real modification takes place in It. The explanation of the phenomenon is given for our present ‘phenomenal-superimposed-condition’. Thus the individual and cosmic aspects – the microcosm and macrocosm (technically called as व्यष्टि & समष्टि Vyashti & Samashti) – of existence are tightly connected.
On the screen of Impersonal, Absolute, Infinite, Unconditioned Pure Consciousness-Bliss Reality (referred as परब्रह्म /आत्मा /महाकारण Parabrahma /Atman /Mahakaarana) following three entities are superimposed:
The above categorization is represented diagrammatically below:
Following diagram tries to show the process of evolution of universe according to Vedanta:
The Subtle and Gross Coverings
The subtle body is made up of seventeen constituents:
Another way of looking at the 'conditioning' of real Self/Reality is the analogy of sheaths/coats:
(a) Blissful sheath (आनन्दमय कोष Ananadamaya Kosha), this sheath is analogous to causal body;
The above classification can be diagrammatically represented as below:
Gross bodies are classified into four types:
From the details of 'existence' mentioned above we can observe that the subtle body or soul (made up of thought-patterns, desires etc.) is unable to understand it's real Self due to 'ignorance' (i.e. due to the covering of causal body); this causes it's transmigration through various gross bodies which function in various 'existence Spheres'. Since the basic 'ignorance' remains intact in this transmigration, the soul remains ever unsatisfied; finally in some human incarnation, when it realizes the futility of this, it renounces outer pursuits and desires, and inquires into the nature of Reality. Fortunately there has always been a small minority - the saints and seers of every country - who have reached the level of Truth and proclaimed Its existence to us all. Out of pure compassion for us, they have given us various 'paths' to reach the Truth. They guide the inquiring soul and help him/her reach the Reality; these seers act as Guru for such souls and the way they show becomes the process of De-Superimposition (Yoga).
(For further study of the topic kindly refer to books published by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Chinmaya Mission, and others on Upanishads, Bhagawad-Gita, works of Shankaracharya like Vivekachudamani, Tattwa-bodha, Aparokshanubhuti, Drg-Drsya-Viveka, Atmabodha etc. and Vedanta treatise like Vedanta-Sara of Sadananda.)