Article: A Vedanta Toolkit Part 1

Subhanu Saxena Subhanu.Saxena at INTL.PEPSI.COM
Fri Sep 11 07:03:14 CDT 1998

At long last, things have quietened down in Russia for me to post the
first of 3 articles I had discussed in my new member introduction,
namely "A Vedanta Toolkit".  The subsequent articles "Shankara's AdhyAsa
bhAshyam-a guided tour" and "A Shankara reader-key passages from
Shankara's bhAshya's that encapsulate his teaching" will follow over the
next few months.

A Vedanta Toolkit:Introduction

This genus of this article is a series of talks I had given in London to
students who were about to embark on a study of Shankara's BhAshyas,
GauDApAda's kArikas, and Sureshwara's writings.  Many found it extremely
helpful to have understood the following basic concepts before delving
into the texts themselves.  I shall try and be as succint as possible,
as my intent is to raise awareness/curiosity in readers so they feel
compelled to study the texts for themselves to confirm/deny what comes
below.  It is evident from recent postings that there are a number of
members already familiar with these concepts. To them I look forward to
their own insights. To those approaching the concepts for the first
time, I hope the below proves useful.

I will cover the 4 concepts of "sarvArtrika anubhava", "adhyAsa",
"vyavahAra and paramArtha drishti" and "adhyAropa-apavAda prakriyA".  A
number of others also add "vastutantram jnAnam" and "sAkhsi anubhava".
I will treat the second as part of the discussion on anubhava, and leave
vastutantram jnAnam as a natural by-product of a correct understanding
of adhyAsa.

1) SarvAtrika anubhava

Translated as universal experience or intuition, this sets vedanta apart
from other systems.  Vedanta is not a speculative system relying upon
pure reasoning or faith, but is based on a universal experience that has
been and always will be available to us all.  Using modern scientific
terminology, Vedanta affirms a repeatable verifyable experiment rooted
in actual experience vs belief in something outside of us.  This is why
the Upanishads do not attempt to prove/disprove the existence of Atman,
as it is our very self that cannot be denied.  All that is required is
to remove our misconceptions, so Atman can rest in Atman free from
distinctions (see later).  Hence vedanta does not teach it as "something
to be attained", or some magical transformation of reality. It is ever
present as an experience.

Shankara also appeals to this unversal experience as he guides us to the
truth. Examples of this are:
- We all have the experience of mistaking one thing for another
- We all have the experience of a state where distinctions of knower,
known, means of knowledge do not exist, ie deep sleep
- We all have the experience of understanding the true nature of
something when our misconceptions are removed.

Post Shankara commentators have often ignored this basic tenet in
interpreting Shankara, and indulge in dialectics that stretch Shankara's
true interpretation.

So, concept number 1 allows us to stay on the straight and narrow and
allows us to tolerate other beliefs and points of view, because the
ultimate arbiter of who is right comes from the experience itself, not
the word.

2) AdhyAsa

If you want a thorough understanding of the message of the Upanishads,
and the purpose of the shAstra, then you need a true understanding of
adhyAsa.  The text "par excellence" is Shankara's introduction to the
Brahma Sutra BhAshyam, often called the adhyAsa bhAshyam.  Since it will
be the topic of a separate article, all I will say now is that it never
ceases to amaze me how little known this astonishing text is amongst
non-vedantins and the general public. It a short encompass, Shankara
lays the ground work for all we need to know when approaching vedAnta.
Having committed the text to memory, I often found myself reciting it
(much to the annoyance of my children: "oh no, there goes Daddy with
that Shankara thing again") as it helps keep me focussed on the key
issues. Anyway, enough of a digression. More in my second article.

Shankara crisply summarises the concept at the beginning of adhyAsa
bhAshyam as "MithyAjnAnanimittaha satyAnrte mithunee kritya, ahamedam,
mamedam iti naisargiko'yam lokavyavahAraha" "Based on a false
conception, the mixing of the real with the not real such as 'I am this'
and 'this is mine' is a natural innate phenomenon in the world".  Simply
put adhYasa, meaning superimposition, is confusing the self with the not
self, and mistaking something for something else. The result of this
superimposition has many manifestations,

- The distinction of subject and object, and the mixing up of the 2
- The distinctions of a knower (PramAtr), the known (Prameya), and the
means of knowledge (PramAna). For those interested, I can post the
sanskrit definitions of these from nyAya darshana in a separate posting
if they so request.
- The presupposition that one is an agent/a seeker/a doer etc distinct
from the Eternal Witness or sAkshi.

This adhyAsa is the precise definition that Shankara gives to avidya.
Wherever there is this distinction of pramAta, prameya, pramAna, or
Veditr, vedya,  vedanA there is avidya. The correct ascertation of
things as they are (vastutantram jnAnam as opposed to kartrtantram
jnAnam, or knowledge dependent on the subject) is called vidyA.  The
duality of name and form thus fashioned by avidya is defined as mAyA.

It is important here to be clear what Shankara does NOT say avidya is,
but has been presumed to say by later commentators:

-Shankara does not imply the existence of an unreal undefinable avidyA
shakti or mulAvidya as followers of the panchapAdika and vivarana
commentaries claim.  The source of the confusion is a difference in
interpretation of the word "mithyAjnAna" in the above phrase.  Shankara
means "mithyA" + "jnAna", or false knowledge in the sense of
misconception.  In the panchapAdika this word is broken as
"mithyA"+"ajnAna", or unreal ignorance.  This is postulated by followers
of this school as the material cause of the universe that clings to
everything and is this mysterious "mAyA" that becomes the catch-all for
everything we cannot explain.  This interpretation is in direct contrast
to repeated statements by Shankara in many other places in his Bhashyas
that make it crystal clear that that is not what he meant. As but one
example, Shankara frequently uses the word "mithyApratyaya" as a synonym
for "mithyAjnAna". It is impossible under the rules of Sanksrit to
decompose this word into anything other than "MithyA"+"pratyaya", or a
false conception. Shankara is therefore not referring to some
inscrutable power that is veiling the world.  For him that would be
contrary to concept 1, that of sarvArtrika anubhava.

- Shankara never equates avidya and mAyA, unlike later commentators.  I
will give the full quote in my 3rd article, but the reference here is to
an unambiguous statement at Brahma Sutra BhAshya 2-1-14 "sarvajnasya
Ishwarasya ...."

Correct understanding of the above makes it clear why Shankara and
Sureshwara never trouble themselves with questions pertaing to the cause
of avidyA, or to whom does avidyA belong.  For anyone under the clutches
of avidyA does not know that they are , and once knowledge has arisen,
there is no more avidyA!  Shankara has a curt response to the question
"to whom is avidyA" at B S Bh 4-1-3, where heaffirms the above.  Avidya
belongs to whom it appears to belong.

A correct understanding of Shankara's position on Avidya makes it all
the more obvious why he regards all vidhi's, secular activities
including Vedic, and treatises on liberation as in the clutches of
avidyA, as they all uniformly presuppose the concept of an agent, a
doer, or a seeker which, as we have seen above, is avidyA.  The full
quote on this comes from B S Bh Introduction: "tametam avidyAkhyam
AtmanAtmanoho itareta adhyAsam puraskrtya, sarve praMana-premeya
vyavhahArAha laukikA vaidikAscha pravrttAha. sarvAni cha shAstrAni
vidhipratishedha-mokshyaparAni".  As such Shankara sees the function of
shastra as simply removing avidya in the form of misconceptions of the
notions of agency and knowership rather than pointing out some external
reality. Hence he calls the shAstra antyam pramAnam, or final pramAna.
Once knowledge dawns, what possible use could there be for further

To be continued in part 2.

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