During the recent meet on nyAyAmRta – advaita siddhi at Bangalore, the eminent scholar Dr.Mani Dravid SastriNaH made known a distinction between the two terms/concepts ‘adhiShThAnam’ and ‘AdhAraH’. The context was about the locus of the superimposition of the entire universe, whether it was Brahman, the Pure Consciousness, or the jIva or Ishwara. The distinction that he made explicit is as follows:
adhiShThAnam: (generally translated as ‘substratum): भ्रमकारणीभूत-अज्ञानविषयत्वम् [‘bhramakAraNIbhUta-ajnAnaviShayatvam’] ‘the object of ignorance that is the cause of the bhrama’. This is the Pure consciousness alone, nirguNa Brahman. The entire universe is superimposed in Brahman, as a result of one’s not knowing brahman.
AdhAraH: (could be translated as ‘support/abode’) अधिष्ठानतावच्छेदकम् आधारः / यदवच्चिन्नचैनत्यम् अधिष्ठानं तदाधारः [‘AdhAraH or support is that (object) which circumscribes/limits the adhiShThAnam (substratum) / ‘the limited/circumscribed Consciousness which is now the substratum, (that is the support, AdhAraH).
To explain, the vyAvahArika world consisting of all vyAvahArika objects like rope, shell and the like, is superimposed in Brahman-Consciousness owing to the ignorance pertaining to Brahman-Consciousness. This superimposition (verily samsAra) goes ONLY upon the realization of the substratum, Brahman-Consciousness.
On the other hand, the prAtibhAsika things, in an error involving rope-snake, take place on the support that is rope/shell, etc. which are themselves superimposed on Brahman. Thus, the rope/shell, etc. (that are mistaken for snake/silver etc. in an error) are Brahman-Consciousness alone limited / circumscribed as it were. This error goes just upon knowing the support/AdhAraH and does not call for the knowledge of Brahman-Consciousness.
Thus, the rope-snake error is a superimposition ultimately, paramparayA, in Brahman-Consciousness, but immediately, sAkShAt, in rope/shell, etc.
This explanation came about while replying the objection: if the objects/world are a superimposition in Ishwara or jIva, they themselves being mithyA, how can there be a superimposition in the locus that is itself a superimposition, mithyA (since, in Advaita, ultimately the entities Ishwara and jIva are not absolutely real).
In the build up to the reply, the learned scholar demonstrated how there can indeed be a superimposition-chain, अध्यासपरंपरा – A person mistakes a shell to be a silver object first and then he erroneously thinks that it is his own and that it is of so much value, weight and so on. In all this, the basic object there is the shell alone and the subsequent superimpositions are on the silver that was first superimposed and so on.
[One can see how the illustration captures the actual samsAra-superimposition as vividly explained in the adhyAsa-bhAShya – the preamble to the brahmasutrabhAShya of Shankaracharya]
This distinction is enshrined in ancient texts like the ‘samkShepashArIraka’, and, of course, the ‘advaitasiddhi’. This concept is closely related to the other famous verse giving out the Advaitic tenet:
आश्रयत्वविषयत्वभागिनी निर्विभागचितिरेव केवला ।
पूर्वसिद्धतमसो हि पश्चिमो नाश्रयो भवति नापि गोचरः ॥ (संक्षेपशारीरकम्)
[The locus and object of ignorance is indeed the impartite Brahman-Consciousness. The entities that appear later, as products of the fundamental ignorance, cannot be the locus and object of ignorance. samkShepashArIraka’]
Om tat sat