rope-snake-advaita-vedanta-analogy-metaphor-analogy-example-meaning

Suppose you're on a deserving holiday in a tropical forest.

Exhausted from day's exploration, the cool bedroom awaits you in a wooden hut.

It's a new moon. Sun has almost set.

Neither completely dark, nor adequate light. Perfect for a snooze.

Removing the mosquito net to lie down, there lies on the white sheets a long serpent.

A moment ago, you were exhausted. The next, body is flooded with adrenaline.

All that's happened today is awash with momentary fear.

The realty of the snake has overtaken all rational judgement. Emotional response reigns supreme!

Snake is the absolute truth! A doubtless conclusion.

But quickly recollecting your primitive composure from a distance, you turn on the light.

Light illumining your world of false-conclusion, it immediately destroys that which is not. And revels that which was-is the truth all along.

There lies your belt in brown leather skin!

Immediately, vexed emotions subside and rationality is regained. Peace restored. Clarity triumphs.

This is the classic example of rope-snake in Advaita Vednta. (Changed to belt for some novelty)

It hints the status of reality for one whose vision is aligned with what-is. And one whose vision is false – appearing as true.

Below we will see how the rope-snake analogy applies in our every day life.

We'll understand how beginingless ignorance (avidyā) gives birth to projection/superimposition (adhyāsa).

First let us see the basic tenets of Advaita:

Basics of Advaita:

  1. The Absolute or the Ultimate Reality is referred as Brahman.
    1. The word Brahman literally means what is big or vast. However the bigness is not limited by any object. It is bigger then the biggest. It accommodates everything.
    2. Brahman is beyond mind (concepts-thoughts/emotions) which doesn't exclude speech (words). Brahman is beyond space, time and causation. Meaning nothing caused Brahman.
      • For example, every child has it's cause, the parents. However, Brahman has no ‘parents'. Nothing have birth to the Absolute.
    3. The best intuition of Brahman is “not this, not this” (neti neti). Meaning Brahman is nothing that one can indicate (first neti), also not that it is nothing (second neti). Meaning, it's also false to understand that “Brahman is nothing“. Because “nothing” is another subtle thought.
    4. The best conceptual / verbal approximation using words is that Brahman is infinite existence-consciousness (satcitānanda).
    5. Brahman is one without a second (non-dual) – being absolute reality. Meaning nothing is separate from Brahman. Not even your agreement or disagreement to this statement.
  2. Real/Unreal:
    1. That which is always real, no matter what, is called absolutely real (sat).
    2. That which is always unreal, no matter what, is called absolutely unreal (asat).
      • For example: human horns, or a square circle. Yes, we know some will say “human horns exist in imagination”. But we're not talking about prātibhāsika (subjective reality). We're talking about vyāvahārika (objective, empirical reality).
    3. That which is dependent on something else for it's reality, is called apparently real (mithyā). Meaning it's neither absolutely real, nor absolutely unreal.
      • For example: the chair depends on the wood for it's reality. Without the the wood, there is no wooden chair, table, cup, etc.
      • In the same way as above example, the world (jagat) is neither absolutely real, nor absolutely unreal, but apparently real.
        • In short: The world we experience only has an appearing/apparent reality. (brahman satyam jagat mithyā)
          • For example, the rain is real, until clouds clear. The clear sky is real until you fly out of earths atmosphere.
  3. Jīva refers to when Brahman (consciousness) reflects on an individual mind, and the mind falsely assumes “I am the contents of this mind-body”. In truth, jīva is not apart from Brahman.

In Advaita, timeless classical examples are used by the ācārya to teach the śiṣya (student) the fundamentals, such as the rope-snake, dream and shell-silver example.

But we must note that all these examples are only means to demonstrate how world of duality/multiplicity is taken as absolute.

Examples or metaphors are never complete explanations, because each is limited to itself and can be easily negated from a different angle. More importantly, metaphors are only effective when used in context.

For example, the best piece of advice is useless if it's not applied in context. One has to see how an example is relevant right now. That's why true Vedānta is taught in class between teacher-student(s) with rapport and trust. Only then the light of knowledge effectively removes avidyā.

What's more, Brahman is beyond mind and speech – therefore any explaining is an indirect pointer.

Finally before beginning the throughout analysis of rope-snake… there is a limitation of the example…

It presents a picture in the mind where the observer (you) is separate from the snake / rope. Therefore we will take it for granted and that this limitation won't hinder our understanding in this article.

Understanding Advaita using the rope-snake example

A metaphor is always dependent on the point of view – therefore it's one-sided.

This is why any metaphor/analogy will only help you if one allows the metaphor to stay within it's own limits. Meaning, don't try to destroy it by bringing in a competing point of view or example.

Ask yourself, “Am I interested in positive life transformation by inquiring further, OR proving how everything is flawed (implying my knowledge alone is flawless)?

Now that our attitude is in check, let's begin…

Seeing the rope as snake = Seeing the Brahman as world

  • Illusion / Mistake = Māyā.
  • Rope = Brahman.
  • Snake = World.
  • Light = Knowledge aligned with Absolute Reality; consciousness (Brahman). Meaning, clarity is complete.
  • Dim light = Partial Knowledge of what-is.
    • I don't know 100% what it is, therefore my mind choicelessly and innocently projects it's own conclusion.
  • Bright light = Self-Knowledge which removes ignorance (mind doesn't know clearly what it is) causing superimposition (…therefore the mind superimposes a false snake onto it).
    • Once false notions of reality are removed, one's understanding  “Truth of self and world is Brahman” is actualized.

To understand the significance of this analogy and it's benefit in your self-inquiry — let's together analyze, one by one, observations about the example.

It will help us in discriminating real from unreal, and also understanding deeper point #2 above…


OBSERVATION 1:

The rope is there: First of all, there is a rope there. If there is no rope there to begin with, the snake would not even appear. The existence of the rope is absolutely necessary for the appearance of the snake.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

Brahman IS.

That is why the world gets to appear. It's why any experience is possible.

Without the paper, can there be a world of words? No.

Similarly, the world being mithyā (dependent-reality), it depends on the substratum (Brahman) for it's appearance. While Brahman is independent of the world.

 

OBSERVATION 2:

You see something: When you enter the room, you see something. It is not that you see nothing.

In order to see something, there must at least be a little light in the room. The room was dimly lit and that is why you could see something.

If there would be no light at all, you won't see anything at all.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

We are indeed seeing/knowing something, be it the extroverted world or the inner world of private thoughts.

Therefore we are not absolutely ignorant.

The reality is not completely covered to us. Only partially.

The partial covering makes any perception possible.

If reality would be totally covered, we wouldn't even have any perception of the world.

 

OBSERVATION 3:

You really see a snake there: You really see a snake, when looking.

It is not that you are trying to see the rope as a snake. The snake is very real to you, so is the fear, as though there's an actual snake!

Another example is when someone moves the hands in front of a lamp – and a shadow is projected of an animal figure on the wall.

You are seeing the animal and calling it by it's right name. A child would even be scared. Yet we are fully aware that the animal is not real.

However above shadow example is NOT not the case of rope-snake. Because you are seeing a snake literally.  There is no awareness that it's actually a rope.

Even though the snake is not real (apparent), the experience of fear and appropriate response is genuine and even justified.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

When we are seeing the world, we are indeed seeing a world “out there” – functioning by it's assigned laws and orders.

Our reactions to that experience is authentic. For example, our worries, sufferings, enjoyments, likes-dislikes… are all justified and genuine.

For some it's so real, that it produces life-long psychological obstructions like “fear of heights”.

 

OBSERVATION 4:

The rope is absolutely real: The rope is absolutely real.

Absolutely real means always real. Real before the mistake. Real during the mistake. Real when the mistake ends.

Before you have entered the room, the rope (or belt) is there.

During the mistake, the rope appears as a snake to you.

However, the rope has not really become the snake. The rope is still the rope.

At every moment of one's mistaken perception, it is still a rope.

And once you realize the mistake, you wouldn't think that the rope temporarily turned itself into a snake – and then turned back into rope.

Instead, you would realize that the rope was always the rope. And this recognition would never go back to it's mistaken mode.

Hence the rope retains its rope-ness at all time.

Your mistaken snake perception does not change the rope-ness of the rope in any way.

Rope remains unaffected, untouched, unsullied by your or anyone's mistake about it – in the past, present and future.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

Even though we mistake unchanging, imperishable Brahman as the changing, perishable world – Brahman remains untouched and never takes on the attributes of the world.

Brahman appears as the world because of it's 3 guṇa śakti called māyā.

However, māyā does not sully Brahman in any way.

 

OBSERVATION 5:

The snake is apparently real: The snake is not absolutely real, but apparently real or conditionally real. The condition is the sustenance of the mistake.

We cannot say that the snake is absolutely unreal – because during the mistake, what you are seeing is very much a snake. It has has some kind of reality.

But we also cannot say that the snake is absolutely real – because at that very place where the error took place – there is no snake, only a rope!

Also when the mistake is gone, we no longer see the snake. In fact, we don't see any of the snake anymore. It's projected sight, sound, touch, smell is completely gone.

Hence the snake is neither absolutely real, nor absolutely unreal.

This means the status of the snake cannot be expressed in absolute terms.

However using relational terms – it is said the snake is conditionally real. Whereas the rope is absolutely real.

In other word, the reality of the snake is conditional on bases of the mistake.

Also note the status of rope-snake realities is completely different. For example…

When mistake ends – the (apparent) reality of the snake ends too. But when mistake starts – the (absolute) reality of the rope does not end.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

The world has no absolute reality, but it is apparently real under the condition of māyā.

The world is real for the time being, but disappears when self-knowledge dawns.

 

OBSERVATION 6:

Mutual superimposition: The existence of the rope proxies the existence of the (appearing) snake. Then the qualities of the snake are (seemingly) superimposed on that existence (sat).

So the appearance is a combination of the existence of the rope and the qualities of the snake.

If the rope were not there – the snake would not appear.

The appearance of the snake is possible only because there is something to begin with.

That something is appearing as a snake.

So the existence of the snake is, in actuality, the existence of the rope.

There is no existence of snake at that place of error. Hence ultimately there is only existence of the rope.

However one does see a snake, which means, the essence of the rope is covered. Hence giving way for qualities of snake to be assumed.

Therefore the qualities of the snake is being superimposed on the existence of the rope – which makes the illusion possible.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

The existence of the world is a borrowed existence, and is of Brahman.

The qualities of the world (world-ness, cloud-ness, tree-ness, stone-ness, rain-ness, mitochondria-ness, thought-ness, etc-ness) is superimposed on existence of Brahman.

This superimposition brings about the apparent reality of the world which we transact in.

 

OBSERVATION 7:

Reaction is inevitable until mistake ends: As long as you are seeing a snake, one is going to react in some way.

Whatever you do – grope, shout or stay alert – all action imply acknowledgement of snake's presence.

If one is snake-charmer, then by virtue of familiarity with snakes, one will react via indifference to that sight.

But even the indifference is a reaction of a genuine acknowledgement of the snake.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

As long as we perceive the world we – are going to react in worldly ways.

Our reactions to different things, of course, may evolve with familiarity.

But as long as our perception of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste is functioning – there will be a certain spell of worldliness / māyā.

For example, one may have full knowledge that body is a superimposition. But it won't stop one form not feeding an illusionary hungry body.

 

OBSERVATION 8:

The rope is not doing anything for or against the mistake: Note that the rope is not doing anything to make the mistake occur.

The rope is just being the rope. It's existing in it's original glory.

However the rope's being is absolutely necessary to bring about the mistake of seeing a snake.

The rope is the cause of the snake illusion – just by virtue of its existence, but not in any other way.

The rope is not doing anything to remove the mistake either.

When the bright light comes, you see the rope. But the rope does not give you any hint.

It is you who discovers the rope in the presence of bright light.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

Brahman does not ‘do' anything to make the world appear.

Neither does Brahman interfere in any way with the world with its goods and bads.

Neither does Brahman help to remove māyā.

Brahman is just Brahman. Nothing else.

But without that being, māyā won't take place.

Brahman can be called the cause of the world only because of Its existence, and not in any other way.

 

OBSERVATION 9:

To end the mistake, only seeing clearly is necessary, doing anything else specifically is unnecessary: The mistake arises because of lack of clarity in seeing.

Hence the only factor necessary to remove the mistake – is to see clearly.

Doing anything else, is only effective if that doing somehow aids to see more clearly. For example, breathing deeply to relax and think more rationally. Then using one's calm body-mind to question the reality of the snake.

However any other action, like groping in the wall, shouting at the snake to make it go away, or leaving the room  – as long as action does not help to see more clearly, it is ultimately useless. But it will surely feel like progress is being made.

Therefore no creative action is necessary. No special self-help seminars are needed. No special “breath-of-fire” is required.

Only knowledge which brings about clarity of vision will work.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

To remove maya, no action, whatsoever is necessary.

Action is not the last word to remove the false conclusion of the world, and self.

Dawn of self-knowledge has the last word.

Thus any action that helps to fructify that knowledge (so it doesn't remain intellectual/philosophical) will work.

 

OBSERVATION 10:

When mistake starts, all of the snake comes at once, and when mistake breaks, all of the snake goes at once:

When the mistake starts, you see a snake at once.

It is not like different properties of the snake appear gradually – and then one connects individual properties to see the full snake.

All of the defining qualities of the snake, the whole snake with all appropriate properties – appear all at once, for which you innocently see a snake.

Similarly, when you realize the mistake, at once you “capture” the rope.

Meaning, it's not that one's mistakes associated with different parts/properties of the snake go on-by-one.

The whole of the snake (with its infinite qualities) goes away at once.

Snake was the unit of illusion as it appeared, and the same unit disappears at once.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

At dawn of maya – the whole universe with all it's worlds and beings, along with their individual infinite properties – appear all at once.

One might say, first came time-space. Followed by 5 remaining elements. Then nebulae, then stars, then planets, etc.

However that's only to help limited mind capture the vastness beyond human mind.

In reality, all appears at once. It may not come as manifest. Instead it remains in potential/umanifest. Through course of time, it turns to manifest.

So whether it's manifest or unmanifest, point is, from the beginingless beginning, it all appeared at once.

When maya breaks through dawn of self-knowledge – all of it's multitude of creations disappears at once.

For a jivanmukta (liberated person)  – world does not physically disappear of course. Appearance of duality still continues. However world is firmly and doubtlessly understood to be the one Brahman.

 

OBSERVATION 11:

Once snake is dissolved, there's no other problem to solve.

When the bright light turns on, it is not that the your fear-experience of seeing the snake goes away immediately.

In fact the fear will linger on for some time – because of body's chemicals and intense thoughts tend to leave fading trails in the mind.

For example, even after turning off the fan, it continues spinning for some time from it's own momentum.

Therefore when the bright light turns on – one realizes there never was a snake present. A welcoming relief indeed.

Meaning the snake gets dissolved.

Thereafter, there is no need to need solve any other problem because the snake (which was giving birth to multitudes of physiological-psychological problems) is now completely gone.

Thereafter any remnants of adrenaline, fear and agitation in the body-mind, is actually NOT a problem that needs to be solved. It's simple the momentum of body-mind response to the snake.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

In the same way, when spiritual ignorance is destroyed upon moksha (liberation) – the problem of worldliness is not solved as such.

Rather the world itself is no longer seen as just a world of different sentient/insentient objects.

The world is dissolved in terms of false vision. Hence no more need need to solve any problem, because all problems stem of taking world to be absolutely real.

Hence it's not that there is a real problem which is solved upon enlightenment of reality.

Instead the liberated one understands there never was any problem to begin with.

In fact, according to Advaita Vedanta, if there is any real problem, it can never go away.

However the problem of worldliness goes away upon liberation – which shows that the problem is not real to begin with.

Thus no real solution takes place upon moksha. Only the appearance of the problem gets dissolved, that's all.

 

OBSERVATION 12:

You can never see the snake and the rope together: Either we see the snake, or we see the rope.

We can never see them as equally real.

Once the mistake is gone, the reality of the snake is gone too.

One can still attempt to see how the rope, kind of looks like a snake.

For example, one can still curiously inquire how the hand shadow, kind of, looks like a dog on the wall. However the inquiry makes no difference. Because the knowledge is absolute.

Applying analysis to Advaita Vedanta:

In the same way, Brahman and the world can never be equally real at the same time.

As long as the worldview seems real, Brahman can not be real – hence on is not truly liberated, only intellectually.

For an enlightened one (jivamukti), Brahman is real – and the convincing reality of the world, is gone forever.


Points above are a means for self-inquiry. Not for intellectual, scholarly discussion.

It is a personal self-inquiry. Use it as such in light of the world perceived.

Again, we already know rope-snake example, like any, has limited scope and is subject to questioning. For example one might ask…

“When you see the rope, how can you say that the rope is actually not an illusion?

Maybe the snake is actually real.

You were seeing the real and suddenly you started to see the illusion of rope.

Your fear disappeared but rather mistakenly. How can you refute this way of thinking?”

Above doubt demonstrates how every example can be negated.

That's why a qualified student knows the subtle difference between inquiring about the metaphor to help him understand reality further… verses  questioning the metaphors validity.

Lastly, I urge readers to contemplate on this topic and suggest any other points of intuition they may come up. Let me know in comments below…

6 Comments

  1. Lloyd on July 5, 2019 at 9:16 pm

    Hi Andre,

    “Also, the above points are by no means exhaustive.”

    Well, I was amazed at how many points (observations) you could extract from this one simple analogy. It’s simply brilliant!

    And, it might just be exhaustive. I tried for ages to try to come up with more points (observing the rajasic intellectual achiever in me) and nearly gave up. Here’s one perhaps.

    Once you know it’s a rope, you can’t un-know it.
    Even if we returned the conditions of the environment back to how it was when the mistake was made, i.e. to low light, and we later go back to the same dimly lit bedroom, we are not going to make the same mistake again. We can’t un-see or un-know the rope.

    In the same way, in Advaita Vedanta, once you have firm self-knowledge, that the world is only Brahman (snake is only a rope) then you will not make the mistake again, even if the same maya conditions return. So moksa is permanent.

    • mm Andre V on July 11, 2019 at 6:36 pm

      “Once you know it’s a rope, you can’t un-know it.” > Very good.

      Just like father who scares son with mask. Son screams in fear by sight of stranger. Once father removes mask, son finds it amusing and is relieved. Son then wants daddy to put mask on again because it’s funny.

      In same way, once apparent veil is exposed, one finds the apparent veil amusing thereon. Thus world no longer has power to give such individual either joy nor sorrow.

  2. Harry on July 11, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Your explanation is simply outstanding. I have read and heard this famous analogy on various platforms in the past but none provided such a clear and thorough explanation. You have very nicely distilled the essence into a form which can be understood by novices. Many thanks for this.

  3. Naveen on September 30, 2019 at 7:55 am

    Great Observations. Not sure if I can ask this question. Why the rope in the first place?

  4. Rhitwika on May 15, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Absolutely brilliant. you helped me out a lot today… thank you . keep it up

  5. Alan Premilovac on July 10, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Thank you very much for these insightful points

Leave a Comment