[Advaita-l] vedAnta/upanishad mahAvAkya - a query

Vidyasankar Sundaresan svidyasankar at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 6 12:33:36 CDT 2012

> Pardon my ignorance. Whenever I hear the words 'upanishat mahAvAkya' I 
> would get the doubt, what exactly is this mahAvAkya?? how can we conclude 
> that there are ONLY four mahA vAkya-s in the whole cannon of vedAnta?? 

The counting of four mahAvAkya-s arises only against the background
of the procedure used for initiating new saMnyAsin-s in the SAnkara
sampradAya. Texts such as the yatidharmaprakASa of vAsudevASrama
and yatidharmanirNaya of viSveSvara sarasvatI (guru of madhusUdana
sarasvatI) describe that the guru should teach a newly initiated disciple
the vedAntic meditation on auMkAra and impart one of the vAkya-s, 
prajnAnaM brahma, ayamAtmA brahma, tattvamasi or ahaM brahmAsmi
(or alternatively, all four of them). The other text that they all cite as
necessary to be taught to the new initiate is pancIkaraNa, which itself
concludes with these four vAkya-s (with one variation, prajnAnam
AnandaM brahma instead of prajnAnaM brahma). 
"saMnyasya SravaNaM kuryAt" says the dharma-SAstra and this is the
SAnkara sampradAya paddhati for how upanishac-chravaNa is to begin
immediately after formal initiation to saMnyAsa. Outside of this context,
there is no special significance to the number four. There are numerous
upanishad vAkya-s that explicitly or implicitly state the true identity of the
jIva as brahman. These four just happen to be one vAkya that gives a
definition of what brahman is and three vAkya-s that neatly cover first,
second and third person constructions of a grammatical sentence that
conveys the advaita principle. It also happens that each of these four
sentences neatly distribute themselves into the upanishad texts, one
each from each of the four veda-s. 
Now, one may ask, most of us here are not saMnyAsin-s, so is there 
a problem in talking of vedAnta and mahAvAkya-s beforehand? The
answer to that has also been indicated in an earlier discussion thread
on our list, citing the words of Sringeri Swami Candrasekhara Bharati -
> what are all the special features that determines the mAhAvakya-s & 
> distinguishes it from other shruti vAkya-s?? when each & every word in 
> shAstra denoting the same adviteeya brahman, how can we conclude that 
> there is ONLY four mahAvAkya-s from all the four veda-s ?? has shankara 

That each and every word of SAstra denotes brahman is at best a gauNa
description of the SAstra. The primary meaning of the word asat (asann
eva sa bhavati), for instance, or the word dvaita (dvaitam iva bhavati), for
instance, is not advitIya brahman. On the other hand, a vAkya is a sentence
constructed as per rules of well-known grammar, with a subject, verb and
object built into it. Nobody says that the upanishads contain ONLY four
mahAvAkya-s. The ONLY comes from the fact that the saMnyAsa paddhati
texts in the advaita tradition list the use of these four vAkya-s at the time
of initiation into saMnyAsa.
> specifically said anything about those four mahAvAkya-s & its superior 
> efficacy in his prasthAna traya bhAshya?? Can an aspirant take initiation 

As per traditional attribution, pancIkaraNa is a text by Sankara, specifically
meant for pAramahamsya-vidhi. If one doubts this attribution, for whatever
reason, it will not be difficult to go through the prasthAna traya bhAashya-s|
and see how often these sentences have been cited in them. 
> of one of these vAkya-s & repeat it like nAma japa and attain the self 
> realization without undergoing traditionally prescribed shravaNa, manana 
> nidhidhyAsana of vedAnta or shAstrA ?? Kindly educate me. 

Taking initiation of one of these vAkya-s is the same as the traditionally 
prescribed SravaNa. What follows is either the route of manana and
nididhyAsana or the immediate understanding of the advaita tattva upon
sakRc-chravaNa (SravaNa done only once). It has never been claimed
by anybody that these are to be repeated as a japa.
The upanishad vAkya-s imparting brahmAtmaikyatva are never to be taken
as orders to do or not to do. They are merely descriptive sentences that
reveal the ever-existing nature of the jIvAtman as idential with brahman.
On the other hand, sentences like AtmA vA are drashTavyaS Srotavyo
mantavyo nididhyAsitavyaH, AtmetyevopAsIta, tajjalAn iti SAnta upAsIta,
so'nveshTavyaH, sa vijijnAsitavyaH, vijnAya prajnAM kurvIta etc are
interpreted by Sankara bhagavatpAda in the prasthAna traya bhAshya-s
as being niyama vidhi-s, restrictive injunctions meant for a mumukshu.
These injunctive sentences are not meant when the term mahAvAkya
is used in the post-Sankaran advaita tradition.

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