[Advaita-l] Ontological status of avidyA

Venkatraghavan S agnimile at gmail.com
Thu Nov 24 00:24:14 CST 2016

Recently, I was reading Prof. Daniel Ingalls' paper on Shankara's arguments
against Buddhism, see link below.


Here, Prof. Ingalls makes several very interesting points. One of these,
while not central to the theme of his paper, struck me as curious. He says:

"Now, `Sa^mkara, to the best of my knowledge, nowhere says that ignorance
is unreal. See my article "`Sa^mkara on the Question: Whose is Avidyaa?"
Philosophy East and West, III, No. 1 (April, 1995), 69-72. It is Padmapaada
who says this."

This did not ring true - can it be true that Shankara does not make a
statement anywhere in his bhAshya that avidyA is mithyA? On reviewing the
other paper referred to him in the quote above (available on JSTOR, if
anyone is interested), his point is as follows.

Essentially, Prof Ingalls reckons that Shankaracharya never made a comment
on the reality of avidyA. He avoided the problem by talking about the lack
of a real connection between Atma and avidyA- that is, what is of interest
to Shankara is not the ontological status of avidyA, but that Atma is ever
free from it. He cites BGB 13.2, BSB 4.1.3 and BUB 4.1.6 as support.

While the second half of Prof Ingalls'  comment, that Shankara's interest
is in proving that Atma is free from avidyA as a paramArtha satya, has
merit, the first half, that Shankara nowhere says that Atma is mithyA, is
not valid on examination.

1) Just by basic logic, Atma is the only paramArtha satya. If Atma is free
from avidyA, then it is anAtma, and hence must therefore be mithyA. If
anAtma avidyA were satya, the basic principle of advaita would be
invalidated as there would be two entities with ultimate reality. Atma and

Shankara himself says that avidyA is not Atma dharma. In BGB 13.2,
ज्ञेयस्य क्षेत्रधर्मत्वात्, ज्ञातुः क्षेत्रज्ञस्य तत्कृतदोषानुपपत्तेः  -
what is known is kshetra dharma, whereas the knower is kshetra. Further, he
says: यदि आत्मनः धर्मः अविद्यावत्त्वं दुःखित्वादि च कथं भोः प्रत्यक्षम्
उपलभ्यते, कथं वा क्षेत्रज्ञधर्मः. If avidyA is Atma's dharma, then how
pray, is one aware of ignorance and sorrow, how can it be kshetrajna

2) Shankara himself clarifies this in Br.Up.Bh 4.4.22: एतदुक्तं भवति —
योऽयम् ‘विज्ञानमयः प्राणेषु’ इत्यादिना वाक्येन प्रतिपादितः स्वयं
ज्योतिरात्मा, स एषः *कामकर्माविद्यानामनात्मधर्मत्वप्रतिपादनद्वारेण*
मोक्षितः परमात्मभावमापादितः

Therefore one line of argument can be, in describing avidyA as
anAtmadharma, Shankara is indirectly saying that avidyA has no paramArtha

The issue with the above is that it can be counter-argued that the avidyA
referred to above is avidyA which has the mind as its locus, and not
mUlAvidya/mAya, which has Atma has its locus. It is this avidyA that
Shankara in Br.Up.Bh 1.4.10 argues has to be located in Atma, as there is
no other conscious entity apart from it.

3) To answer this possible argument, I looked up references to अनिर्वचनीय:
in advaita sharada. It shows up thrice, each time as तत्त्वन्यत्वाभयां
अनिर्वचनीय. All three instances are in Brahma SUtra BhAshya - 1.1.5, 2.1.14
and 2.1.27.

In each occasion, Shankaracharya does not use this adjective to refer to
avidyA, but to the avidyAkalpita nAmarUpa.

However, we can infer the ontological status of avidyA from this. Since
nAma rUpa is said to be by Shankara as being of the nature of mithyA in
these instances (तत्त्वन्यत्वाभ्यां अनिर्वचनीयं, incapable of being
classified as sat or different from it) AND as being avidyA kalpita, it
follows that the thing because of which they are kalpita, avidyA, is also
tattvanyatvAbhyam anirvachanIyam, or mithyA.

4) More directly, in BSB 1.1.5, this adjective is used to describe the
nature of nAmarUpa before creation (यत्प्रागुत्पत्ते:) ie in its potential,
avyakta state.
किं पुनस्तत्कर्म, यत्प्रागुत्पत्तेरीश्वरज्ञानस्य विषयो भवतीति —
तत्त्वान्यत्वाभ्यामनिर्वचनीये नामरूपे अव्याकृते व्याचिकीर्षिते इति ब्रूमः
Therefore this is a comment on the ontological status of avyaktam. Because
we consider avyakta, avyAkrita, prakriti, mAya, mUlAvidyA as synonymous, we
can take this as a comment by Shankara on the ontological status of avidyA

5) In Mandukya kArika bhAshya 3.24, Shankara says:
‘इन्द्रो मायाभिः’ (बृ. उ. २-५-१९)*इत्यभूतार्थप्रतिपादकेन मायाशब्देन
व्यपदेशात्*। ननु प्रज्ञावचनो मायाशब्दः ; सत्यम्, इन्द्रियप्रज्ञाया
अविद्यामयत्वेन मायात्वाभ्युपगमाददोषः । मायाभिः
इन्द्रियप्रज्ञाभिरविद्यारूपाभिरित्यर्थः ।

Shankara says that the very use of the word Maya is as अभूतार्थप्रतिपादक,
that is, the word mAya implies something that is not in existence - या मा
सा माया.  ie not real and later goes on to say that MAya is avidyAmaya.

6) In commenting on BGB 13.34, Shankara describes the phrase
भूतप्रकृतिमोक्षं च ये विदुः that occurs in the sloka thus:
भूतप्रकृतिमोक्षं च, भूतानां प्रकृतिः अविद्यालक्षणा अव्यक्ताख्या, तस्याः
भूतप्रकृतेः मोक्षणम् *अभावगमनं* च ये विदुः विजानन्ति
That is, those that know that prakriti, also called avyakta, which is of
the nature of avidyA, is non-existent ultimately. The use of अभावगमनं as
sublating avidyAlakshaNA prakriti means that it cannot have paramArtha sat.
Ultimately, if advaita is moksha shAstra, avidyA has to be mithyA also.
Therefore, if Prof. Ingalls contends that Shankara did not say that  avidyA
is unreal, it will call into question avidyA's very purpose as a
soteriological science - how is to one get rid of something that is
ultimately real?


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