Sankara and the nature of avidyA

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Mon Dec 2 20:09:59 CST 1996

On Sun, 1 Dec 1996, Sankar Jayanarayanan wrote:

> Moreover, there was an old discussion elsewhere about the nature of avidya
> according to Shankara. Shankara says, in the preamble of his
> Brahma-sutra bhashhya, in the translation by Gambhirananda that I
> have,"...there contiunes a natural human behavior based on
> self-identification in the form of "I am this" or "This is mine."
> This behavior has for its material cause an unreal nescience..."
>                                             ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
> So according to Shankara, nescience is _unreal_, not "anirvachaniya" as
> later advaitins have postulated, which means "neither real nor unreal."
> But I have also read in an article by Ingalls, an eminent Indologist, that
> Shankara did not declare the polarity of avidya to be either real or
> unreal. Was Ingalls then mistaken?

anirvacanIya is not a completely post-Sankaran term. Now, if I remember
right, Sankara does not explicitly say avidyA is anirvacanIyA, but he does
say that mAyA is anirvacanIyA, and elsewhere, he pretty much equates mAyA
and avidyA. The term which means "neither real nor unreal" is
"sad-asad-vilakshaNa", which comes from post-Sankaran advaita. But all
that anirvacanIya means is that the polarity of avidyA cannot be declared
to be either real or unreal. On the other hand, sad-asad-vilakshaNa means
"different from real and unreal". Equating the two terms assumes that that
which cannot be asserted to be either real or unreal has necessarily to be
different from both. This may not be Sankara's intention at all. If you
read the gItA-bhAshya, where an opponent asks Sankara about the nature of
avidyA, Sankara pretty much refuses to categorize avidyA as real or as
unreal or as "different from both real and unreal".

I think Ingalls is largely correct. Do you know the exact word that
Sankara uses in this context? The translation may be misleading, or it may
be based upon reading post-Sankaran thought into Sankara's work. For
example, Swami Saccidanandendra Saraswati (Holenarsipur) is quite emphatic
that Sankara never says that avidyA is the material cause of anything. The
vivaraNa school, however, says so, on the authority of Padmapada's
pancapAdika, where avidyA is said to be "jaDAtmikA". In fact, on the basis
of this argument, the Swami believes that the author of the pancapAdika
could not have been a direct disciple of Sankara at all. Now, one might
argue that tradition cannot be so completely wrong, but this is a weak
argument. Since I haven't studied the originals in such depth, I cannot
say for sure who is right, but it might be worthwhile to investigate this


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