What is adhikAra? (fwd)

Ravi Mayavaram msr at REDDY20.TAMU.EDU
Fri May 15 22:11:28 CDT 1998

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 15 May 1998 12:48:06 -0700 (PDT)
From: Vidyasankar Sundaresan <vidya at cco.caltech.edu>
To: Ravi Mayavaram <msr at reddy20.tamu.edu>
Subject: What is adhikAra?

Hello Ravi,

Here is something to be forwarded to the mailing list. I thought of
sending this after I rejoin the list later in June, but I see that there
is a need for a timely statement of certain things. - Vidyasankar

Sarasvati (vAcAm devatA) is the most compassionate Goddess. She graces all
living beings by her immediate presence, in the form of thoughts and
words. She graces everybody, from the most flowery poet to the most
illiterate fool. She is also the most misused, mistreated and
misunderstood by human beings. But take care, all Goddesses have an
unpleasant side to their graceful nature - words can be double-edged

When talking of any philosophy, we must be very careful of what words we
choose to use and what they mean. In the last week, there has been talk of
something called "mokshAdhikAra" on this list, starting from the threads
on viprataa, saadhanaa, and vedAdhikAra. The term "mokshAdhikAra" is a
misnomer, and I haven't seen it used by any traditional author. To see why
this is so, it is worth investigating what adhikAra is. Let us go back to
the relevant brahmasUtras and SrI SankarAcArya's bhAshya thereon. I will
also quote a small portion from the bhagavad gItA bhAshya.

To begin with, let us be clear that the sUtras insist upon the
requisite samskAras for study of the veda. The bhAshya points out that
this means upanayana and other rites leading to proper vedic study.
Then, there is the example of satyakAma jAbAla, who does not know the
identity of his father. He says so, quite truthfully, to the teacher
whom he approaches, and is accepted, as he does not waver from the
truth. Now, before accepting him, the teacher does say, "only a
brAhmaNa can never waver from the truth," thereby indicating that this
is an assumption that needs no questioning. However, note also that
the teacher instituted no further enquiry about satyakAma's parentage.
The fact that he spoke the truth was enough to prove to him that here
was a brAhmaNa boy, fit for taking on as a student. And we must
presume that satyakAma was taken through the upanayana and other
samskAras when he was admitted as a student. [1] It is upanayana which
makes one a dvija (a "twice-born"). Before we take this to mean
something tangible for today's world, let us first ask ourselves
(especially those on this list who are of brAhmaNa birth) if we have
always spoken the truth. If yes, and this is really so, I salute you.
If no, let us honestly accept that birth in a brAhmaNa family does not
entitle one to any presumptions.

Then, the brahmasUtra draws attention to the fact that those not entitled
to study of the veda are prohibited from SravaNa (hearing) adhyayana
(study) and artha (understanding the meaning), as per the sMRti. Here,
there are a number of sMRtis which do so, which are duly quoted by
SankarAcArya and commentators belonging to other traditions. Note,
however, that this restriction/prohibition (pratishedha) is meant mainly
with reference to study of the veda. Taking the pUrva mImAMsA sUtras into
account, this also applies to the capacity of a person to act as yajamAn
or as a purohita at a yajna. [2] However, when it comes to the question
of moksha, SankarAcArya is most definite - brahmAtmaikya-jnAnenaiva, na
kiMcit karmakoTibhiH - moksha is purely from the knowledge of the identity
of Atman with brahman, not through the performance of millions of rituals.
Rightaway, this undermines the criterion of adhikAra to some extent.

SrI AcArya also has something more important to say on the topic of
moksha, and who gets it. Here is the full quotation - "pUrvakRta saMskAra
vaSAd vidura dharmavyAdha prabhRtInAm jnAnotpattiH teshAm na Sakyate phala
prAptiH pratibaddhum. jnAnasya-ekAntika phalatvAt." This means, "due to
previously done saMskAras, those like vidura and dharmavyAdha acquire
jnAna. [3] It is not possible to prohibit the attainment of the relevant
fruit, as the result of jnAna is liberation." The rules about SUdras,
then, have important exceptions. Note that rAmAnujAcArya and bhAskara take
up this point for great criticism in their systems, but really, this is
not a dUshaNam, but a bhUshaNam of the advaita-darSana.

There are thousands of places where SrI SankarAcArya tells us about the
result of jnAna. One of the most remarkable is the extensive commentary on
the bhagavad-gItA (18. 66) verse - "sarvAn dharmAn parityajya ....
mokshayishyAmi mA SucaH"

Here, AcArya says, "avidyAtamo-nivartakasya jnAnasya dRshTaM kaivalya-
phalAsanatvaM rajjvAdivishaye sarpAdi-ajnAna-nivartaka pradIpa

Which means, "That kaivalya (i.e. moksha) is the fruit of the knowledge
that removes the darkness of ignorance, is obvious; like the light of the
flame that removes the ignorance of snake-etc with respect to rope-etc."
The entire passage is worth being read carefully, hundreds of times. The
upshot is clear - jnAna results in moksha, this can never be denied by
anybody, to anybody. Countless numbers of Sruti statements like, "na sa
punarAvartate" and "brahmavit brahmaiva bhavati" tell us that he who knows
brahman IS brahman, and he does not return to the cycle of rebirths. This
is also confirmed in the sMRti and explained in the bhAshyas. It holds
true as much for vidura and dharmavyAdha, the non-dvijas, as for
yAjnavalkya, SankarAcArya or sureSvara.

Now what does this mean for the word adhikAra? Simply put, all adhikAra
holds only within the SAstra of vidhi and pratishedha, i.e. pUrva mImAmsA,
and its associated notion of the primacy of karma. When it comes to
vedAnta, especially advaita vedAnta, something called mokshAdhikAra is a
non-entity. Remember, SankarAcArya says, "na Sakyate pratibaddhuM" - it
cannot be prohibited. One might say that this holds only for special cases
like vidura, not for all SUdras, so that these others have to be
prohibited access to moksha. However, this is a total misrepresentation of
the true advaita standpoint. It is simply that in the other cases that are
unlike vidura, the absence of jnAnotpatti is what causes rebirths, not
because some sUtra grants or withholds adhikAra regarding moksha. This
holds as much for the dvija who does not have jnAna as for the SUdra (who
is not a dvija, by definition) who does not have jnAna. Far from either
mandating or prohibiting moksha, advaita takes it out of the entire
discourse of vidhi and pratishedha. It is crystal clear that the result of
jnAna cannot be contained in such compartments. Where there is no vidhi
nor pratishedha, there is no question of adhikAra. This is why the word
mokshAdhikAra makes no sense, and I would request members to stop using
it. [4] When the brahmasUtra raises the question of adhikAra, it is only
in the context of veda study. This is by no means identical to moksha -
one can study the veda for thousands of births, and still not get jnAna;
or one may be in a state where veda study is prohibited, and still attain
jnAna. Do not underestimate the power of jnAna to burn all the accumulated
karmas. The present birth is only due to prArabdha karma which has to run
its course.

When this has been said more than a thousand years ago, where is the need
for us, in this day and age, to get into all sorts of uncomfortable
positions about it? Even in the chAndogya upanishad, there is the term
brahmabandhu, for one who is born in a brAhmaNa family, but has no
knowledge. The vast majority of those who call themselves brAhmaNas today
are really only brahmabandhus. On the other hand, I have no doubt at all
that there are those of non-brAhmaNa birth who have jnAna. yo brahma
jAnAti sa eva brAhmaNaH. It is only an unproductive arrogance which
prevents the acknowledgement of this fact.

Finally, note that there are two purushArthas that are involved in all
such discussions of veda study - dharma and moksha. I suggest that all the
contentious issues (most notably, those relating to caste) in modern
reinterpretations of ancient Indian schools of thought arise due to a
confusion between the two. This is another instance of adhyAsa, and
everybody seems guilty of it, both those who see caste as an outmoded form
of social organization and those who defend the notion of determining
caste by birth. If one sees that dharma is not synonymous with moksha, the
debate becomes mostly superfluous, at least from the standpoint of advaita
vedAnta. This may be "unrealistic" for today's social and political
purposes, but so be it. Whoever said that advaita vedAnta has to be


1. Nowadays, it is the custom for the father to conduct the upanayana of a
boy. However, note that throughout the ritual, the initiate never
addresses the father by the blood relationship; it is always "gurO" never
"tAta" or "pitaH". In the case of satyakAma, it is clear that his guru
must have conducted the upanayana, as he himself did not know who his
father was. What was good for the goose is good for the gander. If there
is a student whom a guru initiates properly, that student is a brAhmaNa.
This puts an onus on the guru, to assess the qualities of the student
before the initiation ceremony.

2. Note that the pUrva mImAMsA sUtras present a disagreement between
bAdarAyaNa and jaimini on some aspects of this issue. bAdarAyaNa takes a
"liberal" line, while jaimini takes the "conservative" position. Read some
accessible translation of pUrva mImAMsA texts for more of this issue; it
is too complicated to go into detail here.

3. dharmavyAdha was a hunter, whose story is recounted in the mahAbhArata.
The case of vidura is even more interesting for those interested in the
question of caste by birth. vidura was as much a son of vyAsa as Suka,
dhRtarAshTra and pANDu. However, vidura was counted as a SUdra, because
his mother was one. dhRtarAshTra and pANDu were kshatriyas because their
mothers were princesses. The fact that their common father was vyAsa did
not make them brAhmaNas. And vyAsa himself was not a SUdra, although his
own mother was only a fisher-girl. And Suka was never taken through the
saMskAras, but he was born liberated, so he really didn't need any ritual.

4. I have used highly specific mImAMsA terms like vidhi and pratishedha
here. But this is because the word adhikAra itself carries a highly
specific meaning within mImAMsA and vedAnta. If one does not know the
mImAMsA significance of these words, there is all the more reason to be
more careful while using them. Also note that vedAnta disagrees with a lot
of what pUrva mImAMsA says. Some of the disagreement relates to its view
of scripture too. It is not correct to say that vedAnta completely accepts
the pUrva mImAMsA view of scripture, but this is a topic requiring several
kilobytes of discussion in its own right, so I won't get into it here. I
will content myself with pointing out that SrI SankarAcArya gives two
alternative meanings for brahmasUtra I.1.3. "SAstra-yonitvAt." One of
these would be completely unacceptable to the true pUrva-mImAMsaka.

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list