Like the story of the rope mistaken for a snake,the
mystery has now been explained to me. Like the many bracelets, which I
mistakenly thought were gold; now, I do not say what I said then (sggs 658).

"Rope mistaken for a snake" — what is the story behind this mystic expression the Gurbani (SGGS) talks about here? The Absolute Truth is explained and reinforced by the teachers and the scriptures for our understanding through different similes, allegories, metaphors, figurative or mystic representations, illustrations and analogies. One such analogy involves the rope and the snake. Having properly understood, such analogies enable the spiritual seekers remove mental distortions (Doojaa Bhaav or duality) and realize the One Reality - the Unconditioned Consciousness - that underlies the apparent diversity.

Divine Kowledge (Aatam-Giaan) is the one means for liberation from ignorance of our True Identtity, the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...). With the dawn of the pure Knowledge (Spiritual Wisdom, Gurmat...), one comes to realize that Mool alone is Real and all else is perishable. But, what is Knowledge?

The dawn of the Divine Knowledge really means the rediscovery of the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...), which has never been nonexistent. Freedom of the individual being (Jeeva) from all its sense of material bondage is possible only when such Pure Knowledge of our True Nature (Joti-Svaroopa, Mool...) is realized, or the glory of our True Identity rediscovered. The Gurbani tells us that without such Intuitive Wisdom we are mere dead bodies in the world.

  • ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਜਿਨੀ ਨ ਸੇਵਿਓ ਸਬਦਿ ਨ ਕੀਤੋ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਨ ਆਇਓ ਮਿਰਤਕੁ ਹੈ ਸੰਸਾਰਿ ॥: Satigur jinee n sevio sabadi n keeto Veechaar. Antar giaan na aaio miratak hai sansaar: They who do not serve the Satguru (via Naam-Simran) and do not ponder over the Shabad (Shabad-Vichaar, contemplation on the Shabad, reflection on the Shabad, etc.), obtain not Divine Knowledge (Wisdom, Giaan, etc.) within (ਹਿਰਦੇ ਵਿਚ ਸੱਚਾ ਚਾਨਣ ਨਹੀਂ ਹੋਇਆ) and (they may appear as alive in the world, but) are as dead in the world (sggs 88).  
Knowledge alone destroys the ignorance as light destroys deep darkness. The purpose of analogy such as the "rope mistaken for a snake" helps us remove the misunderstanding about our True Nature which is Pure Consciousness. Once the misunderstanding is removed, the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) stands revealed within.

Ignorance is nothing but the non-apprehension of greater Reality. This non-apprehension of Reality causes the misapprehension in our life. For example, in darkness when we do not have the true knowledge of a rope, we may misunderstand it to be either a snake, or a piece of stick, or a streak of water, or a crack in the ground, and so on. Thus, due to initial non-apprehension of the rope, we could have misapprehensions of the various other objects superimposed on the rope.

  • ਰਾਜ ਭੁਇਅੰਗ ਪ੍ਰਸੰਗ ਜੈਸੇ ਹਹਿ ਅਬ ਕਛੁ ਮਰਮੁ ਜਨਾਇਆ ॥ ਅਨਿਕ ਕਟਕ ਜੈਸੇ ਭੂਲਿ ਪਰੇ ਅਬ ਕਹਤੇ ਕਹਨੁ ਨ ਆਇਆ ॥: Raaj bhuiang prasangi jaise hahi ab kashu maramu janaaiaa. Anik katak jaiase bhooli pare kahate kahanu n aaiaa ||3||: As is the story of the rope and the snake (i.e., rope mistaken for a snake in darkness), some mystery has now been explained (to me). Like the many bracelets (made of gold), which were mistakenly thought (of separate or different from the gold); now, (I) do not say that (sggs 658).
Likewise, in ignorance the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) has been imagined as the false ego, the mind, the intellect, the body, the senses, and so on. Thus, being attached to the ignorance of our Essential Nature, we are fallen into deep sleep of illusion. Consequently, we are unable to apprehend the Reality. Because of such misunderstanding and consequent superimpositions, we suffer under the ignorance about the Truth of our Mool.

The Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) , we superimpose upon It certain conditioning. When the contamination caused by the false limitations is removed, Mool is realized and discovered as the One Timeless Spirit, which runs through All. Just as once the darkness is removed, the rope alone remains; the snake disappears. For we know that the rope alone is real, not the snake; however, it was our non-apprehension of the rope that gave rise to the misapprehension of the snake.

  • ਸਕਤਿ ਅਧੇਰ ਜੇਵੜੀ ਭ੍ਰਮੁ ਚੂਕਾ ਨਿਹਚਲੁ ਸਿਵ ਘਰਿ ਬਾਸਾ ॥: Sakti adher jevarhee bhram chookaa nihchal siv ghari vaasaa ||: In the darkness of Maya, I mistook the rope for the snake, but that is over, and now I dwell in the eternal home of the Lord (sggs 332).
An another example may help us understand this point further. In the dark, a pole or a post may be mistaken for a ghost. As the darkness is removed, the ghost disappears; only the pole remains as reality. Ignorance begets false ego. Due to our ignorance of the rope and the pole, we superimposed our false egoistic ideas on the reality, that is, the rope and the pole. The result was that our non apprehension of the reality (i.e., rope and the pole) caused its misapprehension into a snake and a ghost.

Similarly, the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) alone is Real. However, our non apprehension of this Changeless Reality causes Its misapprehension into a phenomenal world. Thus, under the influence of imaginary limitations, we forget Reality and acts as our existence is separate from the glorious Reality which illumines life.

  • ਆਤਮ ਦੇਉ ਦੇਉ ਹੈ ਆਤਮੁ ਰਸਿ ਲਾਗੈ ਪੂਜ ਕਰੀਜੈ ॥੧॥: Atam deou deou hai aatam ras laagai pooj kareejai: The soul is divine; divine is the soul. Worship Him with love (sggs 1325).
  • ਚੇਤਿ ਸੁਚੇਤ ਚਿਤ ਹੋਇ ਰਹੁ ਤਉ ਲੈ ਪਰਗਾਸੁ ਉਜਾਰਾ ॥: Chet suchet chit hoyi rahu tayu lai pargaas ujaaraa: When you are conscious in your Consciousness, you will be enlightened and illuminated (sggs 339).
  • ਆਤਮ ਮਹਿ ਪਾਰਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਲਹੰਤੇ ॥: Aatam mahi paarbraham lahante: Within the Soul, find the Supreme Lord (sggs 276).
  • ਆਤਮੁ ਚੀਨੈ ਸੁ ਤਤੁ ਬੀਚਾਰੇ ॥: Aatam cheenai su tatt beechaarae: One who understands his own Soul, contemplates the essence of Reality (sggs 224).
  • ਆਤਮ ਰਾਮੁ ਰਾਮੁ ਹੈ ਆਤਮ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਈਐ ਸਬਦਿ ਵੀਚਾਰਾ ਹੇ ॥੭॥: Aatam Raam Raam hai aatam Hari paaeeai Sabad veechaaraa he ||7||: The soul is God, and God is the soul; by engaging in the Shabad Vichaar, God is found ||7|| (sggs 1030).
  • ਆਤਮੇ ਨੋ ਆਤਮੇ ਦੀ ਪ੍ਰਤੀਤਿ ਹੋਇ ਤਾ ਘਰ ਹੀ ਪਰਚਾ ਪਾਇ ॥: Aatame no aatame dee prateeti hoi taa ghar hee parachaa paai: If the individual soul has faith in the Supreme Soul, then it will obtain realization within its own Home, within (sggs 87).

In all the forgoing cases of delusory superimpositions such as sanke-vision in a rope or a ghost-vision in a post, the cause for the illusion (Bharam) is in the accidental non-apprehension of the Real, which gives rise to misapprehension. In the absence of truth, we cannot but misinterpret the Reality through our own misguided imaginations, which form the delusory projections.

Our non-apprehension of Reality and the subsequent misapprehensions are together called delusion or Maya. In the examples of the rope and the post, the ignorance of reality (the rope or the post) is Maya, which is the cause of the creation of the frightening snake and the grinning ghost. The impression that "what we deem a thing to be, in reality it's not like that" — the notion that the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) is the body and mind stuff (which it's not) — is what is called false ego.

  • ਮਾਧਵੇ ਕਿਆ ਕਹੀਐ ਭ੍ਰਮੁ ਐਸਾ ॥ ਜੈਸਾ ਮਾਨੀਐ ਹੋਇ ਨ ਤੈਸਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥: Maadhve kiya kaheeyai bhram aisaa. Jaisaa maaneeyai hoi na taisaa ||1||Rahaaou||: O Maadhav! What can I say about this illusion; what we deem a thing to be, in reality, it is not like that ||1||Pause|| (sggs 657).
  • ਹਉਮੈ ਮੋਹੁ ਉਪਜੈ ਸੰਸਾਰਾ ॥: Haumai moh upjai sansaraa: Out of egotistic attachment, the Universe is born (sggs 1057).
  • ਮਿਲਿ ਮਾਇਆ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਗਵਾਈ ॥: Mil Maya surti gavaayee: By associating with the Maya (illusion), the mortal loses Divine Understanding (sggs 989).
  • ਏਹ ਮਾਇਆ ਜਿਤੁ ਹਰਿ ਵਿਸਰੈ ਮੋਹੁ ਉਪਜੈ ਭਾਉ ਦੂਜਾ ਲਾਇਆ ॥: Eh Maya jit Hari visrai moh upjai bhaau dooja laya: This is Maya, by which God is forgotten; emotional attachment and love of duality is born (sggs 921).
  • ਮਾਈ ਮਾਇਆ ਛਲੁ ॥: Maayee Maya Chhall: O my mother, the Maya is deceitful (sggs 717).
According to the Gurbani, the essentials of Realization of the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...) is knowing that we are not this body and mind stuff but we are different from it. The Mool appears to be a "Jeeva" (individual being) because of ignorance, just as the non-apprehension of the rope caused all the misapprehension about the snake. The misconception was the snake on the rope. When the cause, the misconception dies, then the effect, the snake, also dies.

Similarly, the egocentric individuality dies when the real nature of the "Jeeva" is realized as the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...). When the false ego ends, all its effects or byproducts are also removed, which constitutes emancipation from bondage. The scriptures tell us that through discriminative self-analysis (Viveka) and logical inner inquiry (Vichaar), we can separate the Mool within from the body-senses-mind-intellect-equipment as one separates the rice from the husk, bran, etc.

  • ਜਿਨੀ ਆਤਮੁ ਚੀਨਿਆ ਪਰਮਾਤਮੁ ਸੋਈ ॥: Jinee aatam cheeniaa parmaatam soee: Those who understand their own Soul, are themselves the Supreme Soul (sgg 421).
  • ਆਪੁ ਪਛਾਣੈ ਮਨੁ ਨਿਰਮਲੁ ਹੋਇ ॥ ਜੀਵਨ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਹਰਿ ਪਾਵੈ ਸੋਇ ॥: Aap pachhanai man nirmal hoyi. Jeevan mukti har paavai soi: Pure becomes the mind of him, who recognizes his ownself. He is liberated in this life and attains Lord (sggs 161).
In the "rope mistaken for a snake" analogy, without the rope, the substratum, the superimposition of the snake on the rope is impossible. Similarly, without the Infinite and Changeless Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...), the One Homogeneous Being, which is the Substratum of all, even the delusion of the material world is not possible.

The idea is that, in all earnest inquiries by the real seekers of the Truth, ultimately the real Substratum (Adhaar) comes to be discovered; when we discover the snake in the rope, we all know how impermanent, relatively, is the snake-vision. Then, the superimposition, the snake and its fear, are all declared as "false", while, the rope is relatively considered as "Truth".

By the negation of the false and the assertion of the Truth, the superimpositions (conditioning, material contamination, self-limitations, etc.) are destroyed, and what remains over is the Infinite Reality. When the mental distortions cease the world-illusion also ceases, and the mind revert back to its Natural State of Being (Sahaj Avasthaa, ਗਿਆਨ ਅਵਸਥਾ). As the dirt is washed with the dirt, a thorn is removed by another thorn, a poison antidotes poison, similarly, the mind is purified (conquered) by the mind!

  • ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਮਨੁ ਉਲਟੋ ਮਰੈ ਜੇ ਗੁਣ ਹੋਵਹਿ ਨਾਲਿ ॥: Man mahi man ulto marai je gun hovahi naal: The (lower) mind turns inward, and merges with the (Higher) Mind, when it is with virtue (sggs 935).
  • ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਮਨੂਆ ਜੇ ਮਰੈ ਤਾ ਪਿਰੁ ਰਾਵੈ ਨਾਰਿ ॥: Man mahi manooyaa je marai taa pir raavai naari: If the (lower) mind within the (Higher) Mind dies, then the Husband Lord ravishes and enjoys His soul-bride (sggs 58).
  • ਨਾਨਕ ਮਨ ਹੀ ਤੇ ਮਨੁ ਮਾਨਿਆ ਨਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਮਰੈ ਨ ਜਾਇ ॥: Nanak man hee te man maaniya na kish marai na jaayi: O Nanak, through the (Higher) Mind, the (lower) mind is satisfied, and then, nothing comes or goes (sggs 514).
  • ਮਾਣਕੁ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਮਨੁ ਮਾਰਸੀ ਸਚਿ ਨ ਲਾਗੈ ਕਤੁ ॥: Manak man mahi manu maarsee sach na laagai kat: The Divine Jewel within the (Higher) Mind annihilates the (lower) mind; thus attached to the Truth, it does not wander deluded again (sggs 992).

Although the negation of our false misunderstandings about ourselves is to be pursued, however, after the negation of the false, if we stop right there and do not usher ourselves to go beyond it then our Realization will only be partial.

The Gurbani does not recommend such partial understanding. Instead, the Gurbani wants us to cultivate "ਪੂਰਨ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਗਿਆਨੁ" (Pooran Brahm Giaan - complete Brahm Giaan).

For instance, using our example of the "rope mistaken for a snake", the negation of the snake should be immediately followed by the assertion of the positive existence of the rope! Thus, after the delusory beliefs in ourselves are negated, inward Divine Realization is complete only when we come to assert and live the Truth in Itself. This is why Baabaa Nanak says:

  • ਸਚਹੁ ਓਰੈ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਉਪਰਿ ਸਚੁ ਆਚਾਰ ॥੫॥: Sachahu orai sabh kayu upari sach aachaar ||5||: Everything is underneath (lower than, ਉਰ੍ਹੇ, …) Truth; the truthful living (living with Truth) is the highest (i.e., the superior form of living, ਸਭ ਤੇ ਉੱਪਰ …) ||5|| (sggs 62).

This is the strength of the Gurbani that lies in its positivity, which leads man away from his present confusions and misunderstandings, and raise him from his sensuous slavery, mental weaknesses and intellectual impotency into the stature of a his real "Joti Svaroop". On apprehension of the Mool within (Source, Origin, Jot...), all our misapprehensions end.

  • ਆਤਮ ਮਹਿ ਪਾਰਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਲਹੰਤੇ ॥: Aatam mahi paarbraham lahante: Within the Soul, find the Supreme Lord (sggs 276).
  • ਤੋਹੀ ਮੋਹੀ ਮੋਹੀ ਤੋਹੀ ਅੰਤਰੁ ਕੈਸਾ॥ਕਨਕ ਕਟਿਕ ਜਲ ਤਰੰਗ ਜੈਸਾ ॥: Tohee mohee mohee tohee antar kaisaa. Kanak katik jal trang jaisaa: O Lord, You are me, and I am You — what is the difference between us? We are like gold and the bracelet, or water and the waves (sggs 93).
  • If you know your Soul you know your God (Jallaluddin Rumi).

By careful discrimination, reasoning, or negation (Bibek Budhi) the Bhagats and the Gurus determined the True Nature of the Reality and discussed everlasting Bliss (Anand). No amount of penance or rituals can take us to our Eternal Essence; for penance and rituals cannot destroy the false ego-sense. That can be destroyed only on the direct experience of the Reality resulting from pure Divine Knowledge. Until that is done there cannot be true Peace and Freedom (Mukti) from ignorance.

Consider this little story. Once there was an infant prince who was abducted by a bandit and brought up as his son. After the infant prince grew to adulthood, he was discovered by the King's prime minister who happened to be passing through the jungle. The prime minister identified by the lost prince by the birth marks on his body. The prince was then taken back to the palace. Thus, suddenly, the bandit's son found himself to be a prince! But, as a matter of fact, he always was a prince! But, in ignorance he did not know about it. When the ignorance of his true identity (that he is a prince not a bandit's son) was removed, he realized that he was a prince. That's all. Nothing new was created, added or attained; yet, with the dawn of the True Knowledge, the false disappeared!

— T. Singh