Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada: Commentator Par Excellence
Ravisankar S. Mayavaram
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Mon Jan 3 08:59:25 CST 2000
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Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada
Commentator Par Excellence
JAGADGURU SRI BHARATI TIRTHA MAHASWAMIGAL
The Acharya's bhashya on the Brahmasutras is the fruit of the
austerities of all scholars. Those who taste this elixir will know no
birth, no death.
Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, famous for his profound knowledge in all
branches of learning, has been acclaimed by all men of letters as the
commentator par excellence of Prasthana Traya. This consists of the
Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavatpada's
commentaries, which deal with matters of deep import, shine as
examples of a majestic and magnificent work.
Sri Bhagavatpada has categorically established in his commentary that
liberation is attained only through knowledge of the Self, and not by
a combination of karma and jnana. Even inconsistencies apparent in
some of the passages in the Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and the
Bhagavad Gita have been cleared by the Bhagavatpada by his deep and
In the Bhagavad Gita, we have passages, such as Karamanyevadhikaraste
ma phaleshu kadachana, kuru karmaiva tasmat tvam, which emphasize the
importance of karma for mankind. We also have other verses which
declare Yad jnatva amrutamasnute, and Tato mam tatvato jnatva. These
uphold the path of jnana as the means to liberation. Hence some
people may wonder whether it is not the Lord's intention that only a
combination of karma and jnana will lead to liberation.
These inconsistencies were explained away by the Bhagavatpada who
said that the two paths, namely the path of karma and the path of
jnana, apply to persons of different categories. He wrote in his
commentary on the Gita: "The path of karma concerns the
unenlightened, while the path of jnana is preceded by the abandonment
of all karmas for the enlightened."
In the same way, he corrected the wrong impressions based on a
superficial reading of some passages in the Isavasyopanishad. In his
commentary, he argued that the two paths are not advocated for all
desirous of liberation. Indeed, the applicability of each path
depends on the individual qualification. Thus he said there was no
inconsistency in the text.
Individual Soul and Brahman
The Bhagavatpada held that in reality the individual soul and the
universal Brahman are not different. Non-dualism was criticized by
some people relying on passages in the Brahma Sutras which appeared
to suggest duality as, for example, Bedavyapadesacchanya, Adhikamtu
bheda nirdesat, Netaronupapatteh.
Here the Bhagavatpada said that the duality is fictitious. In his
sutra bhashya, he argued: "The supreme self (Brahman) conditioned by
the adjuncts, such as the body, sense organs, mind and intellect, is
viewed by the immature as an embodied soul."
When the oneness of Brahman is grasped, as the Mahavakya Tatvamasi
proclaims, the distinctions of the doer and the deed, as commonly
understood, is negated. Similarly, once the identity of jiva and
Brahman is experienced, liberation ensues putting an end to all
Bhagavan Badarayana upheld that the entire manifested world is
nothing but the Supreme Self (Brahman). This view is challenged by
many people who argue: "If Brahman is accepted as the sole reality,
all arguments or proofs leading to direct knowledge in the world of
duality are meaningless. Even the scriptures dealing with do's and
don'ts become redundant. So too the Moksha Sastra. Similarly, if
everything other than Brahman is unreal, the Srutis are unreal. Then
how can one support the truth propounded by the Srutis that Atman
alone is real?".
The Bhagavatpada has fully answered these objections. All empirical
activities, the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Upanishads to
attain liberation are relevant only till the dawn of non-dual
experience. Is it not true that the experiences of the dream state
become illusory on waking?
In the same way, the experiences before illumination are true until
we attain oneness with the Brahman.
The argument that Srutis are illusory and therefore cannot lead one
to liberation is unfounded. In the pre-awakened state, the illusory
nature of the Srutis does not arise at all. They are real then, and
there is no incongruity in this.
If it is argued that the Vedas, in fact, are illusory, even then what
harm is there? Do we not come across deaths due to grief which is
nothing but illusion?
Similarly, does not one get the knowledge of having become rich
through a dream which is entirely an illusion?
In this context, there is a Sruti pramana which says that if, during
the performance of the rites for desired results, the agent sees a
woman in a dream, he should know that those rites will be fruitful
because of the vision.
The experience of the dreamer is real in that state, as even an
illusory means of knowledge can produce that experience. The state of
acquired wealth is an illusion brought by a dream which is also an
illusion. There is therefore nothing wrong in the exposition of
The Bhagavatpada's Sutra bhashya follows in several places the
commentary by Sabaraswami in the first part of the Vedas, the
Karmakanda. All scholars say that Sabaraswami's commentary is
authentic. Similarly, none will doubt the authenticity of
Both parts of Mimamsa, namely the first part relating to the Vedas
dealing with karmas and the second dealing with the Brahman,
generally take sentences from the Vedas and attempt to establish the
correct meaning. There is no doubt in this respect among the learned
men. But in dealing with each adhikarana (section) and particular
Veda vakyas, the Acharya's bhashya alone should be the authority. In
canonical interpretations, the Bhagavatpada's intellectual acumen is
In the section on Anandamaya, there is a sentence, Anyontara
atmanandamayah. Here is the word Anandamayah. Does it refer to jiva
or Brahman? Many scholars conclude that it refers to Brahman. The
Bhagavatpada, too, while initially pointing out to this view,
dismisses it as incorrect on the basis of Sruti pramana, Brahma
puccham pratishtha. He asked whether the word Brahma in this passage
was a part of Anandamaya, or its independent state as Brahman, the
He concluded in favor of the latter, namely the independent plenary
The sutra, Atah eva pranah was introduced to explain the meaning of
prana occurring in the Vedas. There is no dispute about this. But
doubts have been raised about the meaning of prana in the sutra. Some
people think that this prana in the sutra refers to Sruti texts, such
as Prana bandhanam hi saumya manah, Pranasya pranam (O amiable One,
the mind is tethered to prana, vital force of the vital force), but
this is not a graceful interpretation of Badarayana sutra.
A sutra is required only when doubt arises about the meaning of a
word in the Sruti. In regard to Pranasya pranam, there is no doubt,
as not only the word, but the chapter is different. In the Udgita
section, we find a sentence, Katama sa devateti, Pranah iti ho
vacha. Here the Bhagavatpada says that the sutra on prana was
introduced to clarify and confirm that this word refers to Brahman in
Next the sutra, Kampanath (because of vibration) is taken up to
decide which sruti text is under reference. But no such text occurs
with the word kampana. Therefore the Bhagavatpada said that sutra is
introduced to deal with that Sruti in which a word with an equal
meaning has been used, namely: Yadidam kimcha jagat sarvam prana
ejati nisrutam, Mahadbhayam vajramudyatam ya etat viduramrutaste
bhavanti. (Whatever universe there is, it has emerged and vibrates
because of prana that is a great terror like an uplifted
thunderbolt. Those who know this become immortal.)
View and Counter-View
It is the general practice that when a point is discussed under any
section, the question is posed first, followed by an answer. In some
cases the conclusion is stated, assuming that the opposition has been
ruled out. But in the fourth chapter in the third pada (part), called
Karyadhikarana, an entirely different order has been followed.
Here the final view comes first, and then the opponent's view. Taken
on face value, it would appear that what is stated first is the
opposition and what follows is the conclusion. But the Bhagavatpada
has explained clearly and at great length that the general practice
has not been followed in this instance.
Despite all these intricacies, Sri Madhavacharya in his Sankara
Digvijaya has paid high tribute to the Bhagavatpada's commentary as
being so lucid and valuable that one can overcome the birth and death
cycle by learning it. He says: "The Acharya's bhashya is the fruit of
the austerities of all scholars. It is a bunch of flowers that adorns
the tresses of Vedamata. It is the immeasurable merit of the Brahma
Sutras. It is the treasure house of Vagdevi designed for her own
delight. Those who taste this elixir will know no birth, no death."
- Jagadguru Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal,
the present Peethadhipati of Sringeri Sarada Peetha and 36th in the
line of succession from Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada wrote this article
for TATTVALOKA April 1988 issue. This article has been reproduced as
translated by K. N. Vedanarayanan and M. V. B. S. Sarma, Bombay.
bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam
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