[Advaita-l] Avidya - Part 3

Shyam shyam_md at yahoo.com
Wed Apr 7 08:57:33 CDT 2010

In the 1st 2 series we examined some portions of Shankara's bhashyas on the Mundaka Upanishad, as well as the Upadesha Sahasri. Now we will take up for closer scrutiny excerpts from his most important and voluminous work - the brahmasutra bhashya.

The introductory adhyasa bhashya of course covers the entire gamut of error and its origin, etc has been dealt with in my series on the initial portion of the adhyasabhashya - those interested can refer to these on my blog www.adi-shankara.org. We shall now take up for consideration subsequent portions of the sutrabhashya. 

BSB 1.1

For the complete comprehension of Brahman is the highest end of man, since it destroys the root of all evil such as Avidya, the seed of the entire Samsâra - samsarabeejaavidya. Hence the desire of knowing Brahman is to be entertained.
What is pointed out here is the validity of jijnansa - of the desire to know Brahman - it representing the highest purushartha, why? So that the root cause, the seed of avidyA from which alone sprouts this variegated samsara is destroyed in totality.

Now let us examine in parallel another excerpt that occurs a little later.

BSB 1.2.22
The distinctive attributes mentioned here, such as being of a heavenly nature, and so on, can in no way belong to the individual soul, which erroneously considers itself to be limited by name and form as presented by Avidya - avidya-pratyupasthappita and erroneously imputes their attributes to itself taddharmaan svatmani kalpayatah
Here we find Shankara talking about Avidya asthe cause of adhyasa. The erroneous attributes being superimposed on itself is adhyasa - why does this happen? Because of avidya. Without avidya such a error would not be possible. Furthermore continues Shankara..

Here the term 'Imperishable' Aksharam means that undeveloped avyakrtam entity which represents the seminal potentiality of names and forms namaroopa-beeja-Shakti-roopam, contains the subtle aspects of the material elements bhootasukshmam, abides in the Lord, Ishwara-ashrayam forms His limiting adjunct, tasyaiva upadhi bhootam
Here the same samarabeeja or seed of samsara is referred to by the term seed of names and forms - namarupabeeja. And while it was referred to as avidya before here it is referred to by the term Shakti. The potential power - Parashakti Herself. And what does this Shakti consist of - the subtle aspects of the material elements. The abode of this Parashakti is also clearly defined for us - Parameshwara Himself is both Her abode and it this ParaShakti alone that represents as it were His upadhi (from the standpoint of the jiva).
Thus we find the terms Avidya and Shakti describing the seed potentiality of these diverse names and form.

Now we will take up an extraordinarily important adhikarana

BSB 1.3.19

In the latter portion of his lengthy bhashya, Shankara has the purvapakshin raise a very critical objection - "How, it is asked, can we speak of the true nature - svam cha rupam - of that which is unchanging and eternal - kutasthanityasya - and then say that 'it (subsequently) appears in its own true nature?"

In other words you say Brahman is Eternal and Real - meaning it is ever-unchanging across all periods of time. Then how can one talk about regaining its true nature? For furthermore the interlocutor continues - we see that - "Of gold and similar substances, whose true nature becomes hidden, and whose specific qualities are rendered non-apparent by their contact with some other substance, it may be said that their true nature is rendered manifest when they are cleaned by the application of some corrosive substance; so it may be said, likewise, that the stars, whose light is during daytime overpowered (by the superior brilliancy of the sun), become manifest in their true nature at night when the overpowering (sun) has departed. But it is impossible to speak of an analogous overpowering of the eternal light of Consciousness atmachaitanya by whatever agency, since, like Vyoman, it is free from all contact."

Only with another entity that is equally "real" can one entity be covered is the assertion being made - if we say the gold regained its true glitter then we must assume that some degree of sediment was obscuring its brilliance and hence one needs to apply a chemical agent to remove that sediment and restore its lost lustre anew. Alternative example is given of an overpowering influence - in this case the lustre of the Sun, that renders the stars whose lustre is less powerful, invisible until such time as the former recedes. How can one understand Brahman, the Nondual Eternal entity to suffer from such an unfortunate obscuration? 

Not satisafied, the purvapakshin raises one additional objection here - "and since, moreover, such an assumption would be contradicted by what we actually observe. For the act of seeing, hearing, noticing, cognising constitute the character of every jiva sarvehi jivah, and that character is observed to exist in full perfection, even in the case of that individual soul which has not yet risen beyond the body."
In other word right now you see, I write, someone talks another one hears and hence alone we observe individuals to possess sentiency - by these very acts which in fact are seen to constitute the very characteristic of a sentient human. If we find someone changeless and without speech, hearing, etc we conclude the individual soul is no more! And here you claim that the individual soul is in fact Changeless and Eternal when what we observe is the exact opposite.

He therefore asks (of the jiva, upon self-realization) : Wherein consists that rising from the body? Wherein consists that appearing in its own form? 

To this Shankara explains the siddhanta -- Before the rise of discriminative knowledge pragvivekavijananutpatteh the nature of the jiva, which is pure light jyoti svarupah, is non-discriminated as it were from its limiting adjuncts upadhis consisting of body, senses, mind, sense-objects and feelings, and appears as consisting of the energies of seeing and so on. Similarly--to quote an analogous case from ordinary experience--the true nature of a pure crystal, i.e. its transparency and whiteness, is, before the rise of discriminative knowledge, non-discriminated as it were from any limiting adjuncts of red or blue colour; while, as soon as through some means of true cognition discriminative knowledge pramanajanitavivekagrahanaat has arisen, it is said to have now accomplished its true nature, i.e. transparency and whiteness, although in reality it was exactly so even earlier.... Therefor the individual soul continuing in the state of its unmanifest nature
 owing to the absence of discriminatory knowledge is said to have its real nature manifested when discriminatory knowledge dawns. Thus the discriminative knowledge vivekavijnanam - effected by Sruti - shrutikrtam on the part of the individual soul, which previously is non-discriminated as it were from its limiting adjuncts, is (according to the scriptural passage under discussion) the soul's rising from the body, and the fruit of that discriminative knowledge - vivekavijnanaphalam kevalatmasvarupaavagatih - is its accomplishment in its true nature, i.e. the knowledge that its nature is the pure Self  ... Therefore the individual soul continuing in the state of its unmanifest nature owing to the absence of discriminatory knowledge vivekavijnana abhavat is said to have its real nature manifested when discriminatory knowledge dawns. Thus the difference between the jiva and the Supreme Lord springs from ignorance alone, mithyajnanakrta eva but not from the
 things themselves, na vastukrtah, since both, like Space, are equally free from attachment."

We had earlier seen that the Acharya had defined avidya as anirvachaneeya - neither real nor unreal. Here we find Shankara emphasizing the "neither real" aspect of this avidya. Unlike in the case of sediment obscuring Gold, etc here there is no real entity that is obscuring Brahman. The jiva due to a lack of discriminative capacity mistakes the anatma - the assemblage of body/mind - karyakaranasanghata - as his self, the atma, just as redness etc is superimposed on a crystal which is in essence transparent. The absence of discriminatory knowledge that is clearly explained here is thus understood in its appropriate context. The jiva in reality is ever the Eternal Nondual Atma - his conviction of the opposite is due to his lacking in discriminative knowledge.

Under what influence does the jiva lack in such discriminative ability - the Acharya clarifies further...."after the unreal aspect of the jiva as such--which is a presentation of Nescience, avidyapratyupasthapita, is tainted by many such defects as agentship, experienceship, desires and aversions, etc and is subject to evils of various kinds--is eliminated, the opposite aspect, viz the reality that is the Supreme Lord, possessed of the characteristics of freedom from sin and so on, becomes revealed just as the rope etc are revealed after eliminating the snake etc 

Again note the very same term - avidyapratyupasthapita - conjured up by avidya -  in other words under the spell of avidya - occuring repeatedly in these instances. Needless to say an absence of anything including knowledge can conjure nothing. 
Adi Shankara now very poignantly sums up the entire teaching and subject matter of the whole Brahmasutra in one single line! 

"The theme of this sârîraka-sâstra is thus : There is only one Supreme Lord - Eka eva Parameshwara - Eternal Unchanging - kutasthanityo - Absolute Consciousness - vijnanadhatur - and Who, like a magician - mayavivat - appears multifariously - anekadga vibhavyate - by means of Maya mayaya otherwise known as Avidya - avidyaya. Besides this there is no other Consciousness as such.

This one sentence is a direct clincher as it were for many points. 

That Brahman alone is the substratum for Maya - and it is none other than the Parabrahman's intrinsic innate Shakti - and that it alone is Avidya. Such an avidya then cannot be an absence - Brahman with the "absence of knowledge" cannot "like a magician" conjure up a multi-variegated appearance. From the standpoint of Brahman there is naught else - there can be no talk of anything. From the standpoint of the jiva who talks about avidya it is very much a Supreme Power - Maya Shakti. It is in this instance that we find the Acharya clearly using the very terms AVIDYA and MAYA in one and the same contextual conformity. 
One would do well to read this sentence in parallel with Shakti-roopam Ishwara ashrayam quoted earlier to arrive at this understanding. That Maya Avidya Shakti Parashakti in essence refer to one and only one entity.

Truly has it been said of this Maya Shakti 

Sukhachidhakhanda vibodhamadvitheeyam, Viyadanilaadi vinirmatau niyojya,
Bhramayati bhavasaagare nithantham, Tvagathitha ghatanaa patiyasi mAyA.

Maya ,which is skilful in accomplishing the impossible, makes the Self, which is of the nature of bliss and consciousness which is impartite and non-dual, whirl round very much in the ocean of samsara by associating it with the created elements - space, air, etc.

We will examine some more sections from the sutrabhashya in more detail in the next in this series.

Hari OM
Shri Gurubhyoh namah



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