[Advaita-l] The Advaita Tradition of Shankara

subhanu saxena subhanu at hotmail.com
Mon Dec 12 18:16:43 CST 2011

Namaste, below is the article as requsted by Ramesh on my understanding of the advaita tradition as I have learnt from my teachers, without resorting to quotes (I almost stuck to this request but failed in a few places, sorry Ramesh!). First having to admit defeat in such a task to condense the vast teachings of Shankara's tradition as I understand it into a short note, I was extremely grateful for the helpful advice and input from Prof Ramanatha and Sri Atmachaitanya. I give them the credit for the good points and take the blame for any errors in the below. As I have stated before, whilst I will always defend my views and those of my teachers, my real purpose is not to win or lose the argument, but to aid our atmavichara, as we should not delude ourselves that our internet discussions can ever replace following the right sadhana which should remain our paramount goal. I hope the below gives enough food for thought for genuine seekers to deeply understand the key tenets of Shankara's advaita tradition, that I have tried to describe in 10 key points to the best of my ability: 

is the One and Only Reality, and Brahman and Ātman are The One and Same Only Entity

The Vedanta Shastra declares
in unequivocal terms that there is only One Reality, given the name Brahman.
The Advaita tradition equates Ātman and Brahman as one and the same and
“without a second”. As Brahman is the only real entity, anything thought of as
not Brahman can only be notional, not real. This begs the question “How do we
know this Truth? What is true Knowledge of this Reality and what prevents us
from learning this great Truth? Finally, what is the path to realise this
Truth? ” These are some of the fundamental questions Vedanta addresses and
provides a clear path to a sincere aspirant to realise the Ultimate Truth of
what is our true nature. To teach us the highest truth of the teachings of
Vedanta, the Sacred Texts use a specific method known as adhyāropa-apavāda. The
Shāstra superimposes a provisional teaching to remove a false notion and then discards
it once the teaching has served its purpose, ultimately to reveal Truth as It
is. So, the starting point of enquiry is to delineate what is ātman and what is
not ātman for the purpose of the teaching:

that which is ātman and that which is anātman are provisional truths assumed
for the purpose of teaching alone 


reality there is no such entity as anātman but for those of us who have not
known this fact it is convenient to speak of that which is ātman and that which
is anātman. This separation is provisional for the sake of teaching ātman as
the only reality, as the separation between ātman and anātman is figurative,
not real. This separation of the real and the unreal comes about through our
innate tendency to confuse the real and the false, which is given the technical
term adhyāsa or superimposition. This superimposition is a false notion known
also as Ignorance or Avidyā.  This
ignorance need not be proved or explained as it is our common universal
experience that we mistake one thing for another. This fundamental
misconception (avidyā) creates the illusion (māyā) that we are agents acting
and reaping the fruits of our actions (note we do refer to avidyā and māyā
interchangeably in the sense that “all this is foolery” but when describing the
technical nature of the error of mixing one thing for another generating an
illusion, Shankara describes māyā as fashioned by avidyā. A simple
illustration, if we wrongly perceive an illusory person going up a ladder we
don’t say “there goes an ignorance up the ladder”). The illusion of name and
form is fashioned by our ignorance.


which is perceived as not ātman is due to ignorance, and such ignorance is
removed by knowledge

Ignorance is error,
confusing one thing for another, also described as superimposition (there are
at least 100 instances in the brahma sutra bhashya where ignorance is described
as superimposition as something imagined). The erroneous notion we hold is that
we are seekers striving for some object or result, creating a division between
subject and object, knower and known, seeker and sought.  This makes us vest an independent reality to
objects around us and we see multiplicity when there is none. We perceive
anātman as real simply because we have not known ātman, through our lack of
critical reflection. However, all such distinctions are a result of our
ignorance, and it is this ignorance which the Shastra aims to remove, letting ātman
shine of its own accord. The world around us never changes its true nature as
Brahman, so it is not “produced” by something. This is a characteristic of our
ignorance as a wrong conception vs something that has the power to “create” an
illusory appearance. This ignorance is therefore only removed by right
knowledge. Lest it be forgotten we also only talk of how the notion that
Ignorance causes the Self to undergo bondage, and that knowledge removes that
bondage and accords release, as also notions pertaining solely to the realm of
ignorance. As a courtesy to speaking empirically, the question arises, what is
the nature of this ignorance that is removed by knowledge? Is it real? Is it
some inexplicable force that somehow creates the world, or is it simply a false

cannot remove an actual thing, it can only remove a notion


Knowledge has never been known to remove
an actual thing. It can only eliminate a false notion. Knowledge can inform, not
create. This makes perfect sense. If there is only one reality, the view that
there is something other than this reality cannot be real, only notional. This
knowledge, which can ultimately only accrue to a qualified aspirant from sruti-vākyam,
simply removes false notions by cancelling an error, after ascertaining a true
nature through discrimination. Regardless of whether you characterise it as
absence of knowledge, doubt, wrong knowledge (or if you must, some bhāvarūpa),
it can only be notional.


the true nature of ignorance is that it is a false notion, not an entity of any

Shankara describes this
ignorance as mithyāpratyaya, a false notion, many times in the Bhāshya .
However, an objection may be raised:  “But
I see the world and there must be a reason for this!” This is only when we see
the world through the eyes of anātman that it appears independently real.
Through the “eyes” of ātman there is only ātman.  Anātman is “born” of ignorance, as we have not
known the ātman, which is the only cause admitted for not realising the truth.  It is tempting to seek for a cause of our
ignorance, as this seems a perfectly reasonable question. However, the notions
of cause and affect are themselves within the clutches of this very ignorance,
so such a question can have no meaning: When you struggle in time, space and
causation you are bound in time, space and causation. Only Vedanta shows us how
to break free from this chimera by negating all that is false, leaving Brahman
to shine forth on its own. To realise that the very question “What causes my
ignorance?” is an illegitimate question, is an important discovery for an

A further objection can be
raised: “But the mind is itself a product of Avidyā, so it is nonsensical to
talk of our ignorance as imagined. This is a common charge against the notion
of our ignorance being merely imagined. However the question itself is based on
a misconception: As mentioned above, to postulate a cause for the mind is
within the very clutches of the ignorance we are trying to dispel, so the
question cannot have a legitimate answer anyway. Second, whenever the mind is
said to operate, ignorance is simultaneously said to operate. When there is no
mind there is no ignorance and vice versa. Suresvara makes this point
explicitly in NS.3.58 and shows he was not troubled by this question. It is
unnecessary to posit a causality of the mind in Shankara’s system since the
question itself is steeped in ignorance and ignorance, which is established on
the basis of our experience, will not brook further enquiry. Also the statement
that ignorance causes the mind makes a claim about the mind that is completely
unnecessary, as it may attach a reality to it unintentionally, for how can a
device, or a courtesy concept of a Root Ignorance (which must be superimposed
since it is just a device!), be the cause of a superimposition?

ignorance is removed through knowledge alone, as it is not an entity at all

Since it is removed by
knowledge, ignorance must be notional, not some entity or force.   It is
simply either absence of knowledge (jñāna-abhāva), doubt (samshaya-jñānam), or
false knowledge (viparīta- jñānam). When such knowledge arises, avidyā is seen
not to exist, have never existed and to never exist. 

We do see in the Vivaraṇam
and Pañchapādikā the notion that this primal ignorance is imagined as a force. Sri
SSS also states in VPP that both the notion of ignorance as a mental notion or
as an indeterminable shakti should be taken as a makeshift (vyapadesha-mātram).
So the question would naturally arise, since this is just a device for the
purpose of teaching, what is the problem? Well ultimately no problem if it aids
the right sādhanā to allow knowledge to accrue. However purely from a purely
dialectic standpoint, when viewed as a device, indeterminable ignorance then
becomes something superimposed/imagined. So we are back where we started that
ignorance is superimposition of one thing on another. It then would become
completely unnecessary to postulate such a causality of the error and the world
to fully understand Shankara’s system, whereas Pañchapādikā insists an
indeterminable inert force that is Avidyā 
(anirvachanīyā jaḍātmikā avidyāshaktiḥ) is necessary, otherwise we
cannot account for the origin of illusory objects (mithyāvabhāsānupapatteḥ). It
also does not help when the Pañchapādikā and Vivaraṇam describe such an
indeterminable ignorance as “clinging to reality” (tattva-rūpa-sattā-mātrānubandhinī
or pratibadhnāti), undergoing pariṇāma to “create” an indeterminable silver
that is later removed by right knowledge, or the detailed attempts to prove
ignorance’s existence via pramāṇas. Also by stating that some ignorance is
present in deep sleep would suggest it is something other than imagined and it
would acquire “some” ontological status not intended (again Suresvara reminds
us in NS 3.57 that there is no mind to reveal ignorance in deep sleep,
confirming it is imagined. Shankara tells us that if we talk of ignorance
present in various states it is just because our wrong notions have not been
removed). This starts to lend a reality to indeterminable ignorance far beyond
what a mere device would do, and could mislead a seeker into believing that
some mystic practices, or other approaches may be required to quell or “dissolve”
(by jñānābhyāsaḥ as Pañchapādikā says) ignorance, leaving the seeker within the
clutches of the agency and doership that right knowledge should dispel. The
simple question is whether therefore such a concept is necessary to fully
understand Shankara’s advaita tradition. We find nowhere in Shankara’s bhāshya’s,
Upadesha Sāhasri, the kārikās or Suresvara’s vārtikās and Naishkarmya Siddhi an
explicit reference to an indeterminable ignorance as a force as the cause of
our error unless you infer such a meaning into innocent phrases as agrahaṇam,
apratibodhaḥ, or mithyājnānam or tamas (which is explicitly defined by
Suresvara in BUBV 1.4.341 as just not knowing Brahman and nothing more). It is
simply not necessary in their writings, and Suresvara in N.S explicitly directs
the aspirant to not enquire after the cause of his delusion in N.S. 3.65.

It is also interesting to
note the context of the times in which Sri SSS wrote: From just one example,
Vedantins Meet records mutually contradictory views amongst those following the
orthodox tradition: root ignorance is indistinguishable from the pradhāna of Sānkhya
vs root ignorance is a mere fancy; there is no ignorance other than absence of
knowledge, doubt, wrong knowledge vs root ignorance has to be different from
these 3 (in express contradiction of Shankara’s own statements); we must admit
the birth of illusory objects to explain the world vs these are mere fancies;
we must prove the existence of a bhāvarūpa-avidyā in deep sleep otherwise we
cannot account for the experience “I knew nothing there” vs this is only
admitted from the standpoint of others and not the of the sleeping person (note
the first position goes against our common experience: the statement “I knew
nothing there” merely implies absence of everything else. If there still
existed a root ignorance in deep sleep, not only does it become something not
imagined, but also we would have the memory “I knew ignorance then”, and nobody
has this experience). Even today I have heard mutually contradictory views from
those within the orthodox condition (a number of you will have seen this play
out on various online lists also), and have spoken to a number of Swamis and
speakers who have failed to grasp the adhyāropa/provisional nature of some of
the teachings even within the orthodox tradition.  It is no surprise therefore that somebody such
as Sri SSS would have sought to clarify what Shankara’s tradition actually
said, to aid the right ātma-vichāra. As I have mentioned to Sri Subramanian
before, those well versed in the orthodox tradition would do a yeoman’s service
to really clarify key points to remove misunderstandings from within the orthodox
tradition itself.

So, how does knowledge
accrue? How do we create the right conditions for this knowledge to arise? We
say as follows:

arises by following the right spiritual discipline that creates the right
conditions for knowledge, and then from hearing the sacred text alone

From an empirical
standpoint, the Vedanta Shāstra tells us we must first create the conditions
for knowledge in us, so that it instantaneously accrues when we hear the Sruti
texts such as Thou Art That. If we have not created the right conditions, when
we hear tat tvam asi, it just passes through us as we cannot fully grasp its
meaning.  So for many of us we have to
contemplate and deeply reflect to inculcate the right conditions. Therefore the
Shāstra shows us how the correct discipline in life prepares both the desire
and the ground for such knowledge. Shankara describes this discipline as the Sādhanā
Chatuṣṭayam.  Suresvara in Naishkarmya
Siddhi 1.52 gives us the explicit steps of this sādhanā that ultimately reveals
reality as it is: By following one’s duties, Dharma, or Righteousness accrues:
From knowing and following the right path, clarity and purity of mind comes
about: This allows us to see the world as it really is, an impermanent sea of
name and form fashioned by our ignorance of Atman: When we have known the world
for what it is, dispassion for the world arises, since there can be no desire
for that which is transient and impermanent: When dispassion arises and the
desire for the transient ceases, the intense desire for the eternal arises. The
seeker then searches for the method to attain the eternal and be liberated. The
method he finds is to renounce all works. This leads the seeker to question his
seeker-hood status and he is absorbed in deep contemplation of the self via
adhyātma yoga. This turns the mind inward and away from the external. Now the
seeker is ready to understand the purport of the Sacred texts, and by merely
hearing tat tvam asi, his ignorance is not only gone, but also he realises it
was never there in the first place. He then rests in his true nature as the
eternally unbound and free ātman. Inference may help us understand what the
ātman is not, but only sruti-vākyam that can throw us into direct awareness of
the truth.

The best
 form of spiritual discipline is a Sacred
Offering, from renouncing all works


uses the phrase Isvarārādhanārtham in Bh G II.48 to describe how we should
perform all works: Live life as a Sacred Offering, a yajna, as this is the way
to transcend the petty notions of me and mine which confuse and obfuscate
reality as it is. The sādhanā described above, when performed as a sacred offering,
naturally leads the seeker to the point where he is ready for knowledge to
accrue. No act is required, for that which is permanent and eternal cannot be
attained by an act that creates impermanent results. Our eternal nature is
Brahman itself and all that is needed is for our false identifications with
that which we perceive as not Brahman to stop. This cancellation of error is
the only knowledge worthy of the name. The Bhāllavi Shruti tells us “sarvaḥ
sannyastakarmaiva jnānāt kaivalyam ucyate”. 
Through renounciation of all works it is through knowledge alone that
one rests as Brahman.

our lives must be as a Sacred Offering and nothing else.

Living our lives as a Sacred
Offering is the highest expression of our sādhanā in the spirit of total surrender,
and creates the conditions for knowledge to dawn, free from the intellectual
dialectic and machinations we obsess over when are still struggling  to fathom the truth. Here we see the perfect
union of the path of bhakti and jnāna. Narada in Bhakti Sutra 19 tells us that
the offering of all acts to the Almighty and feeling the highest pang of
separation on occasions of losing remembrance of our true nature is the essence
of Bhakti. The Supreme Bhakta and the Supreme Jnānī are one and the same, for the
spirit of surrender is fundamental to discarding our false notions of who we
are and our place in the world.  It is
only through complete effacement of the notion of self that knowledge of our
unity with Brahman can arise. 

10.  From an empirical standpoint, practice
makes perfect

We must daily get into the
habit of giving and offering everything we do. 
Ritual gives us one vehicle to create this habit by offering to our
chosen deity an archanā of flowers or by offerings into the sacred fire, or
through contemplation and japa. Once this offering becomes second nature we are
able to mentally renounce and offer all we think and do as our notions of I and
mine evaporate.  At a stroke, our
ignorance can then be removed by the sacred texts which then reveal to us the
knowledge of our true nature. Finally we then rest as our true nature, Brahman,
which is the Highest Truth.  Harih Om! RegardsSubhanu


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