[Advaita-l] mUlAvidyA debate [Was Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati]

Annapureddy Siddhartha Reddy annapureddy at gmail.com
Sat Oct 28 02:22:02 CDT 2006

praNAm.h All,
        In this mail, I will attempt to summarize the mUlAvidyA debate as I
understand it. Please feel free to correct me if my understanding is off on
any of the issues. Thanks.

The major source is: "A Contemporary Debate Among Advaita Vedantins on the
Nature of Avidya" by Martha Doherty (
Another source for the position of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati that I
refer to is "The Method of Vedanta" (translated by Alston).

First, the traditional position. What is avidyA? avidyA is that because of
which the sole nirguNa brahma appears as the jagat.h full of duality. This
superimposition of the mithyA jagat.h on nirguNa brahma is called adhyAsa.
There are two aspects of the avidyA which causes this adhyAsa -- AvaraNa and
vikShEpa. The AvaraNa shakti or the concealing power of avidyA is what
prevents us from perceiving nirguNa brahma directly. And because of this
concealment, our mind is deluded into superimposing a world full of duality
due to the projecting power (vikShEpa shakti) of avidyA. We note that
AvaraNa is the more fundamental of the two aspects. This is because the
projection occurs only because there is a lack of right knowledge of nirguNa
brahma, and this lack of knowledge is caused by AvaraNa. Hence, a new term
mUlAvidyA (the root nescience) is used to denote this Avarana aspect of
avidyA. Thus, this mUlAvidyA is an actual existent entity (in the
vyAvahArika sense) -- hence the term bhAvarUpa. Note that this is an
epistemological analysis of the world of duality.

>From an ontological perspective, mAyA is posited to explain the duality in
jagat.h. mAyA can loosely be seen as the equivalent of prakR^iti in sAMkhya,
i.e., as the upAdAna kAraNa of jagat.h. Though, it should be noted that mAyA
has no reality independent of nirguNa brahma, i.e., the status of mAyA is
that it is mithyA (neither real nor unreal) and not real.

Thus, combining the epistemological and ontological perspectives, a natural
conclusion is the equivalence of mUlAvidyA (avidyA should have been used
instead of mUlAvidyA, but since we have said that mUlAvidyA is the cause of
vikShEpa, we can just focus on mUlAvidyA) and mAyA.

Now, on to svAmi satchidAnandEndra sarasvati's position. Quoting the adhyAsa
bhAShyaM of shaN^kara, the svAmi claims that avidyA is not used in the sense
of mAyA, but is only used in the sense of adhyAsa. To quote from the
translation of svAmi gaMbhIrAnanda -- "Hence there is nothing impossible in
superimposing the non-Self on the Self that is opposed to it. This
superimposition, that is of this nature, is considered by the learned to be
avidyA, nescience." svAmi satchidAnandEndra says that this superimposition
is due to a lack of knowledge, aGYAna. He points out that shaN^kara uses the
terms aGYAna, agrahaNa, anavagama, anavabOdha interchangeably, for this lack
of knowledge. And this lack of knowledge is causeless, because it is
asserted to be anAdi by shaN^kara. Note that in this theory, there is no
entity like the mUlAvidyA that confounds the mind. It is the causeless lack
of knowledge, from anAdi kAla, of the mind that results in the
superimposition of the Self on the non-Self (and vice-versa).

Now, on to the debate between the two theories.
-- The origin of bhAvarUpa avidyA has its roots in the paJNchapAdika
(attributed to padmapAda who is supposed to be a direct disciple of
shaN^kara). shaN^kara in his adhyAsa bhAShyaM asserts that "there is this
natural/innate behaviour, 'I am this; This is mine,' caused by mithyAGYAna"
(Note that this quote is taken from the paper, and not svAmi gaMbhIrAnanda
as he clearly translated it according to the traditional position). Now this
mithyAGYAna could be split as mithyA + GYAna (as svAmi satchidAnandEndra
says) or mithyA + aGYAna (as paJNchapAdika does). The reading of the
paJNchapAdika would then mean "caused by a non-real nescience" which means
an existing entity, in the vyAvahArika sense, called avidyA. svAmi
satchidAnandEndra, on the other hand, sees it as mithyA + GYAna, i.e., wrong
knowledge. And he claims that wrong knowledge arises when there is a lack of
correct knowledge citing gauDapAda kArikas (GK) 2.17 (Essentially, the
snake-rope example. Because there is lack of knowledge of the rope, various
false notions like snake, stick etc. arise regarding the same underlying

svAmi satchidAnandEndra's objection to bhAvarUpa avidyA is as follows. If,
as per the traditional position, mUlAvidyA is the cause of adhyAsa, then
there are two entities nirguNa brahma and mUlAvidyA between which the
superimposition occurs. Now we have the question -- is mUlAvidyA real or
unreal? etc. (Essentially the same questions as were raised by rAmAnuja and
others before and after him). The tradition maintains that mUlAvidyA is
mithyA (neither real nor unreal) and hence there is no contradiction to the
non-duality of nirguNa brahma.

Some other interesting points (which I will not explore further):
-- svAmi satchidAnandEndra's views are very close to the dR^iShTi-sR^iShTi
vAda (it seems he acknowledges it), which is rejected by shaN^kara. This
requires a better understanding of the definition of mithyA as deduced from
taittirIya upaniShat.h bhAShya (TUB) 2.1.1 of shaN^kara by the svAmi.
-- svAmi satchidAnandEndra holds that there is no avidyA in deep sleep,
whereas the traditional position is that an individual identifies with his
kAraNa sharIra which is given the technical name of avidyA.

I hope that this helps and that we can have a fruitful discussion on some of
the issues. praNAm.h.


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