[Advaita-l] On the nature of muula avidya

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Fri Nov 4 13:52:55 CDT 2011

On Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 4:34 AM, subhanu saxena <subhanu at hotmail.com> wrote:

> Ignorance is purely a mental notion [eg BUBV 2.1.267, BUBV 4.3.1530] of the
> nature of mixing one thing for another [N.S. 2.100], because the ātman has
> not been known through lack of critical reflection [BUBV 1.4.444]. If one
> were to open at random the BUB Vārtikā at any verse then there is a highly
> likelihood that you will find a verse within 50 either side that refers to
> the lack of critical reflection as the only reason we have not known ātman
> .  In fact the only cause for confusion admitted in Vedānta is that the
> Ātman  has not been known:
> na
> hi vedāntasiddhānte hyajnātātmātirekataḥ ।
> sānkhyānām iva siddhānte labhyate kāraṇāntaram  ॥[BUBV 4.4.179]
> Indeed, in the Vedānta siddhānta, no other cause exists, other than the
> unknown Ātman
> This is in contrast to other systems such as Sānkhya etc (which postulate
> a material cause for the universe)

Namaste Sri Subhanu ji,

In the Vedanta, prakRti, or mAyA, is admitted as the upAdaana kAraNam for
the universe.  In the Bh.Gita itself we have several verses where the Lord
says that the world is created with the Lord as the 'adhyakSha' by
PrakRti.  All creation comes out of this prakRti and lapses back into it,
only to re-emerge from there in the next cycle.  The abode of origin, stay
and dissolution is the upAdAna kAraNam as admitted in (Advaita) Vedanta.

The last verse of the BG 13th chapter talks of the bhUtaprakRtimoksha which
is explained by Shankara as the bhUtAnAm prakRtiH kAraNam, avidyAlakShaNA,
and its abhAvagamanam.  Only that which has been imagined to be real can,
upon the rise of right knowledge, can become sublated.  The
jnAnanivartyatvam of this prakRti is very clearly stated in this bhashyam.
In fact this knowledge, that is, of the prakRti's abhAvagamanam, is one of
the two requisites of liberating knowledge; the other one being the
distinctly knowing the kShetra and the kShetrajna.

In the commentary of Sri Madhusudana Saraswati for the BG verse 9.10 we
find a quotation and his concluding comment :


अस्य द्वैतेन्द्रजालस्य यदुपादानकारणम् ।

अज्ञानं तदुपाश्रित्य ब्रह्म कारणमुच्यते ॥ इति ।

श्रुतिस्मृतिवादाश्चात्रार्थे सहस्रश उदाहार्याम् ॥१०॥

[I would like to know the source of this verse.  Someone told me that
Sureshwaracharya has quoted or said this in his work/s.  Kindly confirm.  I
find a word द्वैतेन्द्रजालस्य in the NS 2.112, however.

सिद्धत्वात्स्वतश्चासिद्धेरनात्मनो  द्वैतेन्द्रजालस्य ..
>From this sentence of the NS it is clear that Sureshwara admits:

   - That the ignorance is a vishaya for the Self.
   - It is superimposed in the Self as it has to have a support to exist
   and function.
   - This ignorance is of the nature of 'not knowing the self'.

>From the above quote of MS in the BG and what the NS says it is to be
concluded that this variegated world projection has the above stated
ignorance as its  material cause.  In advaita the entire kShetram, the
manifestation of prakRiti.

Shankara says in the BSB 1.4.3:

//"Such a causal state must necessarily be admitted - aavashyaupagnatavya
-, since it is according to sense and reason arthavati hi sa. For without
it taya vina the Supreme Lord Parameshwarasya could not be conceived as
creator - srshtratvam sidhyati, as he could not become active
pravrttiyaanupapatte if he were destitute of the potentiality of action
Shakti-rahitasya. The existence of such a causal potentiality beejashakti
renders it moreover possible that the released souls muktanam should not
enter on new courses of existence, as it is destroyed by perfect knowledge

  tarati avidyAm vitatAm hRdi yasminniveshite
  yogI mAyAm ameyAya tasmai jnAnAtmane namaH [Mahabharatam]

  [By enshrining That Lord in his heart a yogi (aspirant) crosses over the
  vast (pervasive) avidyA (which is) mAyA. To such a Lord who is verily
  Consciousness and (therefore)cannot be objectified, I offer my

  This verse has been quoted by the VivaraNa AchArya to substantiate the
  scriptural position that avidyA and mAyA are non-different. In this
  verse the two terms are used in the objective case, in sAmAnaadhikaraNam
  (in apposition). Shankara has quoted another verse of this very group
  (BhiShma stuti) in the BSB 1.2.25. One can also see the very word
  'taranti' of the Bh.Gita 7.14 (mAyAm etAm taranti te) echoing in the
  Mahabharata verse as 'tarati mAyAm / avidyAm'. The author of 'both' is
  Veda VyAsa.

A couple of posts by Sri Ramesh Krishnamurthy that appeared on this topic
in the Advaitin list could be accessed here:

> Further, our ignorance must be notional and not real or some other
> indeterminate entity
> or force, since it would destroy the very basis of the tradition that only
> knowledge removes ignorance, for knowledge can only remove a notion, not a
> thing or a force. Suresvara echoes his teacher Shankara’s statement in BUB
> 1.4.10
> jnāpakam hi shāstram na kārakam in the following:
> jnāpakāni hi shāstraṇi kārakāṇi na kutrachit [BUBV 1.4.1262]
> The shastras inform and do not anywhere create
> Indeed the statement that avidyā  is mithyā+ajnānam, an anirvachīniya
> shakti is explicitly refuted in BUBV 1.4.425:
> mithyājnānam katham vastu na hi
> mitthyeva vastu sat ।
> mithyā tad vastu chetyuktir mahatām iva shobhate ॥ [BUBV 1.4.425]
> How can Mithyājnānam be an entity since a false entity cannot exist?
> A statement that something can be false (non-existent) and also existent
> befits
> only the great
> A rare example of quite a sarcastic statement by Suresvara to reject
> anirvachanīyatā of ignorance, possibly to show the force with which he
> wished to make the point. Suresvara is consistent with his teacher in
> describing ignorance as having no existence in the past, present or future
> at any time:
> tattvamasyādivākyottha-samyagdhī-janma-mātrataH |
> avidyā saha kāryeṇa nāsIdasti bhaviṣyati || [S.V. 183]
> On the rise of right knowledge from sentences such as tat
> tvam asi etc, it is known that ignorance and its effects was not, is not,
> and never will be

> Ignorance is simply a notion that is a non-entity that  is opposed to
> knowledge: ajnānam hi nāma jnānābhāvasya
> cha avastu-svābhāvyāt [N.S. III.6] , an error cancelled through knowledge
> [N.S. 2.29 and also upadesha sāhasrī 16.62 verse section] and
> does not need the status of bhāvarūpam in Suresvara’s works.

That a mithyAvastu is not existent in all periods of time is the ultimate
siddhAnta in advaita.  That it exists and produces an effect is well
admitted by Shankara.  For example in the ArambhaNaadhikaraNa bhashyam
Shankara has very well admitted the 'kArya janakatva' of the 'unreal' Veda
and argued at length on this. What Sureshwara says in the above places is
only the well-admitted parama siddhAnta pertaining to a mithyA vastu in
advaita.  Sureshwara's words do not vitiate the stand regarding the mithyA
ajnAnam's upAdAnatva for the jagat.  That the
avidyA/ajnAna-non-different-prakRti's material causehood is quite shAnkaran
and scriptural is well established in the earlier stated quotes.

> So, whenever avidyā is said to cause something it is of the nature of
> nimitta-kāraṇam
> not upādana-kāraṇam in Suresvara’s writings, so we have:
> Ajnāna-mātra- nimittatvāt [N.S. III.1], and
> yannimittam cha sākshitvam  [BUBV 4.3.350]
> This is entirely consistent with his teacher Shankara (who
> explicitly describes avidyā-nimittam in Upadesha Sāhasrī    2.51
> prose section rather than avidyā-upādānam) , who tells us this fundamental
> error is of the nature of mixing one thing for another. The adhyāsa bhāṣyam
> quotes that describe this innate error that is ignorance as a
> superimposition are well known to all : sarvathāpi tu anyasya
> anyadharmāvabhāsatām na vyabhicharati, and adhyāso nāma
> atasminstadbudhirityavochāma [Adhyasa Bhashyam].  Shankara makes an
> even more explicit statement in Upadesha Sāhasrī   2.51
> avidyā nāma anyasmin anyadharmādhyāropaṇā,  ignorance is nothing but the
> superimposition of the attributes of one thing upon another. We can see how
> adhyāsa and avidyā are used interchangeably here, as well as in the
> vārtikās [BUBV 1.4.412, 473]

The term 'nimitta' in 'mithyAjnAnanimitta' in the adhyAsabhAShya can very
well be, without defying the rules of grammar, explained as 'upAdAnam'.
'nimitta' is a synonym of 'hetu'.  What Shankara says there is that it is
having mithyAjnAna as its cause. This generic word can be explained with
the specific meaning of upAdAna, material (cause).

> So ignorance is merely imagined [BUBV 4.3.402, 436 and many
> others], purely notional , described as moha [BUBV 2.1.6], bhrānti
> [N.S.2.31], mithyādhīh , a false notion [BUBV 1.4.438], of the nature of “I
> have not known Ātman ” [BUBV 1.4.173-179, TUBV 2.176 etc]. The word
> tattvāgrahaṇam has been used also to describe this not knowing, and
> previous posts have mentioned that there is no need to infuse this meaning
> with
> the sense of root ignorance, as a literal rendering is sufficient.
>  An important corollary to the above is to always remember that
> there is no actual entity as anātman [BUBV 4.3.1521, 4.4.322-327, TUBV
> 2.369].

Advaitins very well recognize that there is no 'actual entity'   called
anAtman.  Yet it has been elaborately dealt with in the scripture and in
the bhashya and other works by treating  it 'as if' it is.  For example
Krishna chooses just in one single verse 'daivi hyeShA guNamayI...' to
'posit' its existence/experience  'duratyayA' and its ultimate
non-existence 'mAyAm etAm  taranti te'.  Here the 'jnAnanivartyatvam' of
mAyA and its kAryam is very explicit. In BG 2.16 the word 'asat' is also
explained only as something that does not ultimately matter but temporarily
countable.  The very method of the 2.16  is most visibly appreciable in the
last verse of the BG 13 th chapter.  That it is something deserving
'dealing with' is itself incontrovertible proof in Advaita for its 'sad
asad vilakShaNa' nature.

> 2)      Suresvara only ascribes anirvachanīyatā to the name and form
> imagined through ignorance, in keeping with his teacher
>  The name and form imagined through avidyā has been described
> by Suresvara as anirvachanīya however [eg BUBV 1.4. 397-399, 1.4.482].
> This is quite in keeping with his guru eg  BSB 2.1.14 and Upasesha Sāhasrī
>   1.18 -19
> prose section, where we also have the famous salilah-phenavat analogy of
> foam
> and water and the apparent indeterminacy of the name and form of foam
> fashioned
> by ignorance of its true nature. See also BUB 2.4.10

Everyone agrees and recognizes that the projected universe is nothing but
name and form.  It is this name-form nature of the universe that engages
the attention of the scripture and the bhashyakAra to treat it as something
to be got over/eradicated.  The indeterminacy is also spoken of as
'sattvena asattvena vA nirvaktum ashakyatvam' through the words
'tattva-anyatvAbhyAm anirvAchyam'.  Here the word 'tattva' refers to
'existence'/'reality' and the word 'anyat' refers to the opposite of the
former: total non-existence/unreality.   .

> 3) Avidyā is of the common experience of everyone and does not need to be
> established by any pramāṇa

Yet Shankaracharya, through that dialogue in the BG 13.2, establishes it by
svAnubhava pramANa. Here He makes the questioner realize that it is
sAkShi-vedyam: 'jAnAsi..?'.

>  b)Sri Sadananda: In addition ignorance cannot be proved by any known
> means of
> knowledge, pramANa.
> Avidyā,  itself being innate, natural and not any form of power/shakti [SV
> 1088] has no need to be established through pramāṇas, as stated in the
> notes of Sri Sadananda, since it is experienced by all
> atah pramāṇato’shakyā’vidyā’syeti vīkshitum |
> kīdrashī vā kuto vā’sāvanubhūtyekarūpatah  || [SV 184]

It has been described by the Shruti as 'devAtmashaktiH' , the shakti of
Brahman the Conscious Being. Shankara too calls it a shakti.

> In fact one can never know ignorance as belonging to anyone,
> neither determine its nature, or conceive how it can possibly be at all,
> since
> it is essentially the nature of common experience itself [SV 184]
> (Side note: in the vivaraṇam on the panchapādikā we find an extensive
> attempt to establish anirvachaniya avidyā  by various pramāṇas eg
> arthapatti, anupalabdhi etc. According to Suresvara this is quite
> unnecessary)

That which is common experience also needs to be 'shown to be so' by the
scripture and the Acharya.  That is why the most common experience of 'I
am' is also 'pointed out' by the Acharya.  It is only then that one nods
recognizing its undeniability.  So, AptavAkya becomes a pramANa even in
getting across this message, whether it is about one's Brahman nature or
about one's  bondage.  In fact in the BG 13.2 dialogue it is the
'kAryAnumeyatvam' of avidya (VivekachUDaamaNi)  that plays the key role in
helping the questioner recognize this.

>  4)      The teachings of Shankara’s tradition are for those who have
> already prepared themselves for right knowledge via correct sādhanā,
> obviating the need for certain questions such as “what causes my
> confusion?”, which can serve no meaningful ultimate purpose

That 'jnAna abhAva' causes confusion is the reply that comes only after
asking the question 'what causes adhyAsa?'.  The svaprakAsha Atman cannot
get into an adhyAsa-caused samsara without anything that obstructs the
self-effulgence.  That obstruction, AvaraNa, needs to be identified and

We see Shankara going with the Lord who caters to the aspirants of the most
preparatory stage.  'api chet sudurAchAro', 'atha etadapyashakto'si' are
all not shunned by Shankara as those not belonging to His tradition.  In
fact the Shruti itself says 'asti iti eya upalbdhavyaH', 'asanneva sa
bhavati' etc. to teach the starting point for spirituality.

> If an aspirant is unable to get past the question of what
> causes his confusion then a notion of mūlāvidyā could be beneficial
> provided the aspirant is clear this is provisional (Sri Subramaniam
> brought out
> in previous posts this point when he affirmed that avidyā  is merely
> imagined, nothing more, and the notion of a cause of ignorance, quoting
>  Citsukhacharya “upachārāt”,
> can only be a courtesy for the purpose of teaching), and that ultimate
> knowledge can only come through Sruti vākyam [S.V 1092] for the qualified
> aspirant. It is important to not forget that seeking for a cause keeps
> aspirants under the clutches of the very adhyāsa they are trying to
> eliminate.

This is very true.  The seeking for the cause is no life-long engagement by
itself.  The very answer to this question is easily available in the
scripture and the bhashya.  So there is no seeking for this cause as a
specific sadhana.

> This last point is worth a short mention. We must not forget
> that Shankara’s teachings were for qualified aspirants who were
> sādhanā-chatuṣṭaya-sampannāḥ. Such aspirants would already have understood
> the
> independent unreality of the world around them through discrimination of
> the
> real and unreal and would therefore not be troubled by such questions as to
> what causes their confusion. In times after Shankara we tend to want to
> delve
> directly into the highest teachings of the Shāstra without necessarily
> having taken the care to prepare ourselves for such knowledge through the
> appropriate sādhanā [which is described in a step by step manner in N.S.
> 1.51]. As a result,  seekers can get bogged down in the intellectual
> dialectic of why they are confused.

I think all the trouble arose/arises only when the traditional teachings
about avidya happen to be questioned.  It is only the consequent reaction
that goes by the name of above dialectic.  I would think that the dialectic
is only a result of the initial triggering.

>  Shankara’s and Suresvara’s writings, in slight contrast to later
> vedantins, are more concerned with Brahman than the external world and its
> cause. Their focus is less to explain avidyā and more to eliminate it.

The Scripture, the Brahmasutras and the BhAshya do not subscribe to the
above thought.  The aim of the Scripture is to enable the separating of the
puruSha from the prakRti.  In that effort the Scripture has to show what
this prakRti is to the aspirant and thereby make him see reason as to why
he should engage in serious discrimination, prakRti-puruSha viveka.

> One can imagine if such a seeker came to Shankara with such a question as
> “well, why am I confused and see the world?”, then Shankara would have
> almost said “You are not yet ready, come back when you are!” We get a hint
> of this in the dialogue with a student in Upadesha Sāhasrī   prose section
> 2, and also the short shrift he gives to questions such as to whose is
> ignorance eg BSB iv.1.3, GBh XIII.2.

This perception is also not in tune with the method of the
shAstra/bhAshya.  It is exactly to explicitly answer the question “well,
why am I confused and see the world?”, that the entire lore of the
scripture and bhashya exist. Instead of turning away such an aspirant the
scripture shows ways and means to prepare the him and enable his
appreciation of the teaching.  That is why we have the 16th chapter and
similar portions in the BG, for instance.

> 5)      Call to action to re-institute the extensive study of Suresvara’s
> works
>  In summary we can see that a full study of Suresvara reveals
> more clearly the profound nature of his teachings which makes it all the
> more
> sad that his works are so neglected these days. For, a complete study of
> his
> works yields a comprehensive picture of the advaita tradition of Shankara,
> and
> also where he is in consonance with his teachers and how he may have
> differed
> from subsequent vedantins.

That Sureshwara's works are not studied extensively is a point that has to
be addressed.  However, the remark that he may have differed from
subsequent vedantins is always debatable.  There are those who point out
that Sureshwara himself has differed from Shankara.  Even if there are
differences among Vedantins it does not harm the aspirant who is under a
truly qualified teacher.

>  Prof AJ Alston makes this pertinent point on his translation to
> Naishkarmya Siddhi chapter III which was the basis of the lecture notes of
> Sri Sadananda:
> “Padmapāda and the classical “Vivaraṇa” school which followed him
> are concerned with cosmology and with giving some reputable philosophical
> account of the external world as grounded in Brahman. Hence they stress
> mūlāvidyā-causal avidyā as a kind of stuff or substance grounded in Brahman
> whose modifications cause the external world. Suresvara, by comparison, is
> less concerned with the external world and more concerned with Brahman.
> There is hardly a sentence on cosmology in the “Naishkarmya Siddhi”
> (contrast “Panchadashi”), though its author claims it handles all essential
> topics. Avidyā is not so much a substance which transforms itself into the
> world as an inexplicable force which hides Brahman. [ie not an
> anirvachanīya shakti that is the upādāna kāraṇam of the universe]. In
> harmony with this we find Suresvara stressing the total non-existence of
> the world in the consciousness of the jnāni  (in contrast to  “Panchadashi”
> , for example). And again in harmony with the view that refuses to waste
> time examining avidyā but in a hurry to do away with it, etc” [The
> Realization of the Absolute tr AJ Alston, page 142]. We find similar
> sentiments
> from Prof Shoun Hino and Prof Hacker.

Surely Prof. Alston's observations reveal his complete unfamiliarity with
the method and facts of the Scripture.  For example there is a large volume
of discourse in the BG on the cosmos: Chapters 7.8.9,10,11,13, 14, 17 and
18 have so much of teaching on the world and its nature. The Mandukya
Upanishad has a whole description of the Cosmos, both micro and macro, in
the mantras up to the 7th where the culmination comes in the way of
'prapanchopashamam'.  Almost every Upanishad engages elaborately in the
delineation of sRShTi.  The Brahma sutras do not lag behind.  They have
their own share and content on cosmology.  Discussions on bhUtas,
indriya-s, prANa, etc. are quite common there.

And regarding Panchadashi, the chapters are so nicely arranged that the
entire gamut covers the pancha-kosha, avasthA traya, AtmAnAtmaa,
prakriya-s.  In fact what comes to mind, even to the Dvaitin, about
Panchadashi is: mAyAkhyAyAH kAmadhenoH vatsau jIveshwaravubhau. yathEccham
pibatAm dvaitam tattvam tu Advaitameva hi'.  What greater testimony is
needed for the Panchadashi than this singularly outstanding teaching of
Advaita?  In effect, every work of importance in the vedantic lore caters
to all types of adhikArin-s.  Each will find what is required for him.
Since each person comes with his own stock of samskara-s, it is but
necessary to seek what one needs.  And the Guru and Ishwara are the guides
that help in this identification of what is needed and get past what is
not.  For, there are always people who need what one may not need.

>   I hope the above provides some food for thought for aspirants and has
> shown that a
> cursory study of small section of Suresvara’s works may not give a complete
> picture of what he really said.  Actually my main purpose for writing this
> note was not to lay out whether or not mūlāvidyā is found in Suresvara’s
> writings but to simply to make a plea for people to undertake a direct
> study of Suresvara’s vārtikās  and Naishkarmya Siddhi for themselves, so
> they may directly uncover the treasures therein which will definitely aid
> their sādhanā
>  Regards
> Subhanu

Surely, Sir, as always, your genuine noble intentions are highly
appreciable and worthy of practicing.



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