[Advaita-l] Avidya Part 2

Shyam shyam_md at yahoo.com
Fri Apr 2 09:37:41 CDT 2010

In the previous series we examined the bhashya on the Mundaka Upanishad with a view to ascertaining how Bhagwan Shankara elucidates the idea of avidya in his writings.
Now we examine a very important text of the Acharya - the Upadesha Sahasri. The Englis translation of Swami Jagadananda has been used in this essay.

Shankara issues a narrative to set-in place the context to the teaching.
A student approaches the Guru in the prescribed manner and asks "How can I be liberated of this transmigratory existence? Is this my own nature or is it Causal?" The teacher says to him "It is not your own nature, but is causal". The student now poses a direct question - "What is the Cause?" to which the Guru answers: The cause nimittam is avidya, Knowledge vidya brings it to an end tasya nivartika. WHen Ignorance the Cause is removed - avidyayam nivrttaayaam tan nimitta-abhavaat you will be liberated mokshyase janmamaranalakshanat. 
Now Shankara has the student pose these questions - What is that Avidya? What is its seat?
The teachers says - You are the Supreme Self tvam ParamAtmanam but you wrongly think vipareetam pratipadyase but mistake yourself to be samsari samsariaham asmi iti - this is avidyA.

Here we see Shankara indicating initially to the student what is avidyA by its effect - i.e. mutual superimposition of the Atma on the anatma and the anatma on the atma - itaretara adhyasa. After all this is the very introduction to the teaching - what the student knows at this stage is duality - ideas of Maya, anirvachaneeya, etc are still alien to him. So at the very outset the teacher is explaining to the student in terms he can readily understand that a. he is limitless. b. he consideres himself to be limited c. this is because of avidya.

Further, Shankara characterizes this as the seed Ignorance that is responsible for this adhyasa subsequently in the same text:

It is these wrong notions (viz. adhyasa) that are the causes of delusion vimoha buddher grhaeva karanam. These notions, bereft of their cause grha-pyahetu( viz. Avidya) come to an absolute end, like fire bererft of fuel.

Here we find the Acharya indicating an unmistakable sequence of cause and effect. There is a Cause which gives rise to the wrong notions and these wrong notions alone are the cause of the delusion of duality. When knowledge extinguishes the root cause it renders the continuation of this wrong notion impossible.

And hence the Acharya again asserts:
How can one be born again who has known the oneness of the Self and Brahman and is sure of the non-existence of the seed called Ignorance stated before?

There are multiple instances where-in the Acharya also talks about the inscrutable power of Maya as the Causal potency behind creation, the Causal seed that sprouts forth the variegated samsara, and talks about it interchangably with avidyA.

The Brahman that is immediate and direct, the innermost Self (ya atma sarvantarah) ...is by virtue of Its inscrutable power the cause of the manifestation of unmanifested name and form which abide in the Self through its very presence, but are different from It, which are the SEED of the universe (jagadbeeja), are describable neither as identical with It nor different from It (anirvachaneeyayoh) and are cognized by It alone.

Here-in we find the Acharya precisely defining Maya as a.anirvachaneeya and inscrutable b.the Seed c. Brahman's intrinsic power

Elsewhere we find:
Unperceived in deep sleep but perceived (in waking) by only those who are ignorant, the entire universe is an outcome of Avidya and therefore unreal.
What is called Deep Sleep? Tamas or Ajnana is the seed of the waking and dream states. It gets perfectly burnt by the fire of the Self knowledge and it no more produces effects, like a burnt seed that does not germinate.

Here we find the very same seed that is responsible for the variegated duality is being termed Avidya. And what is made clear is that self-knowledge alone burns this seed avidya or root cause, so that it is rendered incapable of germination.

Again we find the same idea being emphasized further in the Up Sah:

That one seed called Maya is evolved into three states which come one after another again and again. The Self the substratum of Maya though only one and immitable appears to be many like reflections of sun in water.

In this particular sentence, the substratum of avidya is unmistakably mentioned as to be the Self alone. And the analogy of the One sun appearing as different due to its reflections in water is provided for enabling an easy understanding of this concept. This point is reiterated for emphasis by the Acharya once again:

Just as the one SEED called Maya is regarded according to the different states such as the Undifferentiated, etc so the Self appears to be different in waking and dream bodies like reflections of the moon in water

Thus we find in numerous instances in his seminal work the Upadesha Sahasri, that Adi Shankara has provided a working definition of adhyasa, precisely assigned its Cause, has illustratively elucidated its substratum, nature and effects, has interchangably used the terms avidya and Maya, and has of course asserted all along that with self-knowledge to which it is opposed this Seed of Ignorance can be rendered sterile and incapable of germinating samsara.

We will examine some more of Shankara's writings on avidya in the next.

Hari OM
Shri Gurubhyoh namah


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