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)!

Human Consciousness

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:

 ‘Drg-Drsya Viveka’ further mentions that there are following three identifications in us:

1) ego and sense of ‘I am’ – a natural association

2) ego and body – result of past actions (Karma)

3) ego and witness – caused by ignorance of Reality

All above three identifications cease to exist when we realizes our true infinite nature.

As is evident from above discussion, we function daily as a personality based on physical body. We think of ourselves in terms of our date of birth and our family relations; our name and form; our age and death.

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.

… what does the statement of existence of the world mean then? … It means that it has no absolute existence. It exists only in relation to my mind, to your mind and to the mind of everyone else.

… we have to work in and through it. It is a mixture of existence and non-existence. … there is neither how nor why in fact; we only know it is and that we can not help it. … the very basis of our being is contradiction.

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:

  Body ( शरीर Sharira ) Individual Aspect Collective Aspect
1 Causal (कारण Karana) Inner Witness (प्राज्ञ Prajna) God (ईश्वर Ishwara)
2 Subtle (सुक्ष्म Sukshma) Soul (तैजस Taijasa) Logos (हिरण्यगर्भ/सूत्रात्मा Hiranyagarbha/Sutratma)
3 Gross (स्थुल Sthula) External Appearance (विश्व/वैश्वानर Vishwa/Vaishwanara) External Appearance
(विराट Viraat)

The above categorization is represented diagrammatically below:

Due to three superimposing bodies, the infinite Reality appears as 'transcendent Fourth' (तुरीय Turiya). If three quarters are added to by another quarter, we get a whole; and after becoming whole the three quarters are merged into the single whole; similarly the three superimposing bodies (of individual as well as collective) appear from and merge into undivided infinite Pure Consciousness. Every individual experiences the three bodies in three successive states of consciousness: deep-sleep, dream, waking.

Thus instead of perceiving the Reality of singular undivided Pure Consciousness, we perceive ourselves and the world in place of It. The staple analogies to explain this, in Vedanta, are: appearance of snake in a rope, silver in a mother-of-pearl, water in a mirage, or thief in a stump of tree; due to darkness we mistake a thing for something else. When the Reality is covered (superimposed) with the conditioning of individual causal body, It is called Prajna; and when It is covered with the conditioning of cosmic causal body, It is called Ishwara. Further the individual and cosmic subtle bodies give rise to Taijasa and Hiranyagarbha in the Reality and gross bodies create Vishwa and Virat respectively.

Following diagram tries to show the process of evolution of universe according to Vedanta:

On cosmic level the subtle elements of
Space (आकाश Aakaash),
Air (वायू Vaayu),
Fire (अग्नि Agni),
Water (जल Jala), and
Earth (पृथ्वी Prithvi)
remain in unmixed state.

Later, at the gross level, they mix
with each other in permutation and
called - पंचीकरण Panchikaran - to form gross outer elements.
The outer elements form not only
our visible Earth Sphere
but many other higher and lower Spheres of existence;
fourteen such spheres are mentioned in Vedanta texts.

The Subtle and Gross Coverings

The subtle body is made up of seventeen constituents:

(a) Five senses of perception (ज्ञानेन्द्रिय Jnanendriya):
  1. senses of hearing (श्रोत्र Shrotra),
  2. touch (त्वक् Twak),
  3. seeing (चक्षु Chakshu),
  4. taste (जिव्हा Jivhaa),
  5. smell (घ्राण Ghraana);
(b) Five senses of action (कर्मेन्द्रिय Karmendriya):
  1. speech (वाक् Vaak),
  2. hands (पाणि Paani),
  3. feet (पाद Paada),
  4. organ of evacuation (पायू Paayu),
  5. organ of generation (उपस्थ Upaastha);
(c) Five vital/life-forces (पंचप्राण Panchaprana):
  1. प्राण Prana (life-force moving in the upper part of the body),
  2. अपान Apaana (life-force moving in the lower part of the body),
  3. व्यान Vyana (life-force moving across entire body),
  4. उदान Udaan (located at throat, it helps soul leave the body),
  5. समान Samana (located at the center of body, assimilates food and drink);

(d) Mind (मन: Manas): A modification of internal psyche which considers the pros and cons of a subject (संकल्प/विकल्प Sankalpa/Vikalpa) and also the memory function (चित्त Chitta);

(e) Heart/Intellect (बुद्धि Buddhi): A modification of internal psyche which determines the real nature of an object (निश्चयात्मिकावृत्ति Nishchayatmika Vritti) and also associated with self-consciousness or egoism (अहंकार Ahamkara).

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; 

(b) Intelligent sheath (विज्ञानमय कोष  Vijnanamaya Kosha); 

(c) Mind sheath (मनोमय कोष  Manomaya Kosha); 

(d) Life-force sheath (प्राणमय कोष  Pranamaya Kosha); 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sheaths combined (b,c,d) is analogous to the subtle body;

(e) Food sheath (अन्नमय कोष  Annamaya Kosha), this sheath is analogous to gross body; 

The above classification can be diagrammatically represented as below:

Further, some texts mention classification of subtle body (which is analogous to the three inner sheaths) elements as: 

1) Intelligent Sheath = {Senses of Perception + Intellect/Heart} 

2) Mind Sheath = {Senses of Perception + Mind} 

3) Life-force Sheath = {Senses of Action + Life-force} 


Subtle Body = {Intelligent Sheath + Mind Sheath + Life-force Sheath}

Gross bodies are classified into four types:
   (1) those born from womb (जरायुज Jarayuja) e.g. men, animals etc.,
   (2) those born from eggs (अण्डज Andaja) e.g. reptiles, birds etc.,
   (3) those born from moisture (स्वेदज Swedaja) e.g. lice, mosquitoes etc.,
   (4) those born from soil (उद्भिज Udbhija) e.g. trees, creepers etc.

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.)