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Rope and snake

Satyanarayana dasa the last verse and now in this verse Prthu Maharaja starts
speaking about devotional service although it is mixed with knowledge.
These two verses can be compared as "jnana-misra-bhakti". And in the
next two verses he will speak about pure devotional service. Prthu
Maharaja is explaining the all strata beginning from the original
state of material conditioning and raising to the point of what the
sadhaka has to do. Then, how he develops knowledge and the ultimate
conclusion is in devotional service to the Supreme Personality of

Because the Kumaras are coming from the jnana-marga, they have spoken
much about jnana or knowledge which involves asakti, attachment to the
Lord which means that one has to detach from the material world. This
verse and the previous ones they have clearly spoken that one should
not become attached to the material world but rather one should
understand that this material world is also situated in the Lord and
in this way one comes to the "vasudeva consciousness" (vasudeva sarvam
iti sa-mahatma su-durlabhah). This is how one may use the path of
jnana to attain devotional service. But the ultimate conclusion is in
devotional service.

As it was said previously, attachment to this material world is the
cause of one's destruction. When the senses become attracted to this
material world or material sense objects, the intelligence is lost.
Just as the water is sucked away by the kusa grass that is growing
around the lake, the senses suck away the intelligence of the living
entity. This is one type of fall-down as Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita
"buddhi-nasat pranasyati"; "intelligence is lost" means that the
intelligence to differentiate between matter and spirit is lost.
Otherwise materialistic people are also very intelligent in performing
their material activities.

But there is a bigger danger than that - it is the misunderstanding
of one self as the ultimate reality. This is the greatest obstacle in
the path of devotional service much worse than falling down into the
pool of material sense gratification. This is, according to Srila
Prabhupada, like 'commiting spiritual suicide', because his own 'self'
is completely lost. He cannot again come to the path of devotional
service, because his concept becomes totally changed. Therefore the
Vaisnavas always speak very strongly against this concept of 'oneness'
with the Supreme Lord.

The four Kumaras explained that there are four paths: dharma, kama,
artha, moksa. Out of those, moksa is the supreme. Now they want to
clarify that this path of liberation is not 'oneness' with the Lord.
This liberation is dealing with service to the Lord, not the "sayujya-

Raghunatha dasa Goswami says in his "Mana-siksah" that this
sayujya-mukti it is like a tigress which devours everything. This path
of liberation will completely devour the soul whereas the material
sense gratification only devours the intelligence. This is because in
that state one thinks that he has no existence, he is 'one' with the
Supreme. One's personality is completely lost. Then there is no
question of devotional service after that.

Therefore Srila Prabhupada says that this argument which is used by
the impersonalists should not be misunderstood because this same
argument is also found in the scriptures. Most of the arguments that
the impersonalists use are actually found in the scriptures but they
twist the meaning and they bewilder the simple people. They use such
highly complicated words that the common man cannot understand what is
the real significance of the example. There is a saying in English
that 'if you don't understand something then just believe it'. They
don't understand so they think it must be true.

Now we will attempt to explain what is this "vivarta-vada" and what
is this example of the rope and the snake so popular among

The impersonalists have these three terms: sat, asat and mithya. Sat
means 'real', which always exists in past, present and future. There
will never be a time when it will not exist. Asat means which is
'unreal', it never exists. Like somebody saying, "I saw a rat with a
trunk". The rat doesn't have a trunk and will never have a trunk. This
is called 'asat', which will never exist. Then there is 'mithya' that
they explain that is neither real nor unreal. Mithya should not be
confused with 'false'. The word also used is 'unexplicable'. One
cannot explain what is it. This example of snake and rope explains
these three things. They say that it is like if there is a rope and
you see it in the darkness (not complete darkness otherwise one could
not see it), you may think that maybe it is a snake. And automatically
you become terrified. But when you put on a torchlight you realize
that actually there is no snake, it is only a rope.

They say that this snake is perceived when there is improper light,
this is not a real snake, because if it was real it should exist even
when one put the light on it. And it is not unreal, it means it is not
that it not exists, because if it is completely non-existent then one
do not fear it, one will not perceive it when there is darkness.
Therefore the impersonalists say that this appearance of snake at that
time is the work of maya. This snake manifestation is called mithya
and it comes into existence by the mercy of maya. Maya performs two
activities: first it covers the intelligence and then supplies the
object for the intelligence. If the knowledge is covered that is not
sufficient; a new object has to be given to replace the previous
object. Just like a magician, he may throw a stone in the sky and when
the stone is falling it turns into coins. There are two things he
does: firstly he covers the stone and secondly he produces the coins
in the place of the stone. Similarly Maya is divided in two sections:
one covers the rope and the other gives rise to the snake. And that
snake is vivarta, which means an illusory transformation, or an
illusory appearance of the object. For the impersonalists illusion
doesn't mean false, they called it mithya. Then the snake is the
vivarta of the rope.

These are the examples they give to understand. Brahman is sat (like
the rope) and this universe is mithya, which is like the vivarta of
Brahman. This is the philosophy of vivarta-vada often refered as
Mayavadi because this vivarta is hapenning due to Maya. This is only a
vivarta, this is not reality, not Brahman. Therefore their philosophy
is 'brahman satyam, jagat mithya, jiva-brahmeva naparah' which means
that Brahman is satyam (real) and jagat is mithya (illusory, neither
real nor unreal). Because if it is real it must exist even in Brahman
and if it is unreal we should not perceive it now. Thus they say that
the jiva is only Brahman, not different from it. This is how they
propound their philosophy and then they use the word "adhyasa" which
means super-imposition. This snake of vivarta is super-imposed unto
the rope by Maya. They say that this material world is adhyasa or
super-imposition unto Brahman and this happens by the work of Maya.
Therefore as we put some light on the snake then one realizes the
rope. Light means knowledge. In the same way if we understand
knowledge from the sruti, from the statements of the Vedas such as
"tattvamasi" (I am that), "aham brahmasmi" (I am Brahman) and we
meditate upon this then this adhyasa or super-imposition will be
removed because when there is knowledge, this vivarta cannot exist.
The illusion of something is removed when one gets knowledge of the
basis of that illusion on which the illusion is existing. Because this
material world is appearing illusory in Brahman, if one knows Brahman
then this illusion will disappear, we will not see it.

The fallacy in this example is that there are no three categories.
There are not sat, asat and mithya, there are only two categories:
there is only sat and asat. There is no such thing as neither real nor
unreal (mithya). No one perceives it, therefore it cannot be
explained. Although they say that this illusion is inexplicable but
the thing is, this does not exist therefore this is asat. What is the
explanation for one's perception of the snake in the rope? The person
who is perceiving the snake in the rope has experienced the snake
before, either by hearing about or seeing in photograph or movie, or
actually having seen a real snake. He has an experience of snake. And
because snake is the cause of death which is the greatest fear for the
living being, this knowledge is very strongly situated in the mind. Of
the four activities, eating, mating, sleeping and fearing, this last
one is the more prominent. This fear of death is naturally situated
and therefore those objects that give us fear are very strongly
situated in our samskaras or impressions in the heart. So when he sees
the rope which has some similarity to the snake, immediately the
impression of the snake becomes prominent in the mind and that is
super-imposed on the rope and he starts thinking 'it is a snake'. He
is actually neither seeing the rope nor the snake because there is
improper light. He just puts on his own experience unto the rope and
he starts to believe that it is a snake and becomes fearful. The
super-imposition is actually not a creation of maya, it comes from his
own mind and the test is if the person has not experienced a snake in
his life, either by hearing or seeing, he will not think that this
rope is a snake. Why maya is not getting a snake for him? For example
if there is a small child, if he sees this rope in a little darkness,
he will not fear it, he will even catch it because he does not know
what snake means, he is not afraid of it. And such baby is not Brahman
realized. They say when one is Brahman realized maya cannot create any
illusion for him out of shyness. Darkness cannot come in front of
light. But the fact is, if the person is ignorant and is also bound in
the three modes of material nature, why is he not also perceiving
snake in this rope? Basically this super-imposition is coming from
one's own mind and thus these examples when they are given, the
purpose beyond them is to become free from the attachment to this
material world.

In the last three verses Prthu Maharaja was speaking with the Kumaras
about detachment. They said that everything in this material world is
blessed to be destroyed by time. So one should not become attached and
engrossed, one should realize that one is transcendent to these
things. So this meditation on the last verse and this verse is for
this understanding that 'I am not this body'. But just as the snake is
only experienced when I am super-imposing, if there is no real snake,
there cannot be an experience of snake and there cannot be an
illusion. Illusion cannot be created. So just as the rope is real, the
snake is also real although the real snake is not present in that
place, it is present in his samskaras, in the impressions within his
mind. And the impressions become active by similarity or by
meditation. Therefore Madhvacarya said 'brahman satyam, jagat satyam',
jagat is also satyam because it is also energy of the Lord. Our
philosophy is that this jagat is a manifestation of the Lord's
external potency and because the Lord is real, His energy cannot be
unreal or illusory. But this is a different type of energy from the
internal energy. This external energy goes through changes or
transformations but it is also eternal. This is called the changing
reality. The Vaikuntha planets are not undergoing the transformations
of creation and destruction. Otherwise energy cannot be created or
destroyed. And because this is also an energy that they also accept,
otherwise it is impossible to explain the creation. If the energy is
there how the energy will be destroyed? Actually it is not destroyed
but transformed into a different form of energy. This example of the
rope and the snake is just there to help us to understand the
ephemerial nature of this material world. And because this world is
temporary, everything is in transition and one cannot derive real
happiness from it.

The Kumaras are recommending that one should surrender to the Lord.
And this Lord is not the same as the jiva. Why? Because it is said
here that the Lord is liberated, He is pure and He is free from the
material world. He never comes under illusion. The living entity falls
under the illusion and when he is under such illusion one cannot say
that he is mukta, liberated. If he would be mukta there would be no
need to give him any instructions. 'Eternally liberated' can only be
applied to the Supreme Lord. The Lord is beyond the reactions of
karma. He is not under the influence of Maya. Only the living entities
under the influence of Maya have to suffer the reactions of their
karma. When the living entity becomes free from Maya then he
automatically becomes free from the reactions of his karma. The
impersonalists say that there is no meaning that one should surrender.
This verse explains very nicely the real purport of this example of
the rope and the snake. When one becomes free from attachment to this
material world, then one becomes qualified to perform pure devotional

Another way of analysing these things is that they have spoken from
texts SB 4.22.18 to 40 (about 23 verses) and one should study what
they said in the beginning and what they have just said in the
concluding verses. In the beginning verses, when they were
congratulating Prthu Maharaja they said "My dear King, you are very
fortunate because you have a great attachment to glorify the lotus
feet of the Lord who is the killer of the Madhu demon." Then in the
concluding verses (39 and 40) they again said "One should worship
Vasudeva and that is the easiest way to get rid of this bondage to the
material world".

Similarly there are another means to analyse 'abhyasa'. Abhyasa means
repetition. What is that one thing which has been repeated in these
statements? And if we see the word 'rati' has been repeated four times
- it means attachment to hear the Lord's katha. And he talks so much
about associating with devotees and hearing Krsna-katha. From
repetition we can understand that he is speaking about devotional
service, not merging into Brahman. So by this analysis we can
understand that their purpose is not to speak about Brahman

A man is sleeping and is having a nightmare, suddenly a tiger appears
in a dream. Then the man becomes very fearful and due to this fear he
wakes up. Although this tiger is illusory, under the modes, and the
speculative state is free from the modes, but it has the power to
uplift him from this dream state to the awakened state. This is the
example the impersonalists give. They divide the reality in three: the
ultimate reality, the practical reality and apparent reality. All
their statements are part of the practical reality but they have the
power to uplift one to the ultimate reality.

But the defect in this example is: this tiger was experienced when he
was awake. It is not that without experience of tiger he would dream
about it and would fear it. If he would see something new like that he
would not fear it. The fear appears because of experience during the
awakened state. The tiger has to exist on the awakened platform and
that is why it has the power to uplift one. Dreams are real otherwise
we could not perceive them. But they are not absolutely real as this
material world is not absolutely real. There is an object on the
mental platform. Like if we close our eyes we still can see an object
just seen previously because the image is formed in our minds. If it
was not formed in our minds it means that it is completely unreal and
we could not perceive it.