The only source for the knowledge of this Brahman is the Sruti or the Upanishads. The remaining sutras in Pada 1. The Brahmasutra asserts in 2. These should be combined, merged into one and practiced, because there is nondifference of their basic import, that of Self, mind, knowledge and a state. The topics discussed are diverse.
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Vande parasparAtmAnau bAdarAyaNashankaru Introduction In the canon of vedanta litarature, the Brahma Sutram occupies a unique position as the oldest systematic commentary on the Upanishads. Whilst there is doubt regarding authorship of some of the works attributed to shankara, there is universal agreement in the tradition that the bhAsyam on brahma sUtram was compsed by Adi Shankaracharya. This is evidenced by the fact that the genesis of post shankara schools arises from sub-commentaries on primarily his brahma sutra bhASyam.
His astonishing introduction to his Brahma Sutra Bhashyam BSB , often called the adhyAsa bhASyam, is, in my view, one of the greatest texts written on vedanta, and holds the status for me of a Sruti. For in it, we find no quotation from other shastra in this introduction to support his statements. They are simply outpourings from anubhava, or experience, of an enlightened sage, and which appeal to that sArvatrika-anubhava, or universal experience, that belongs to each and every one of us.
He succintly manages to summarise all the key points that will unfold in his Brahma Sutra Bhashyam, and connects them to the central underlying theme. The them of is work is: " My commentary will explain how the brahma sutram identifies the fundamental obstacle to knowledge, and how the it explains the method used in the Sruti to remove this obstacle, so that ultimate knowledge which will be defined , is acquired". At one stroke he covers the aim of the work, its purpose, and what the answer is to the basic question above.
In summary, Shankara clarifies for us that the obstacle to enlightenment is a misconception on our part, which superimposes mixes up up the real and non-real, which drives an empirical view of the world as an apparent duality of subjects, objects, and means of knowing these objects.
The misconception is innate to us, and tradition gives the technical name adhyAsa to this superimposition. Shankara further defines the avidyA in the Sruti as this adhyAsa. Once this avidyA is removed, what is left is vidyA or knowledge that is the experience of brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
Therefore, shankara says, the purpose of the shastra is to reveal brahman by identifying and removing avidyA or misconceptions, so that brahman can shine of its own accord. In so doing, in his adhyAsa bhASyam, shankara sows the seed for all the important aspects of his tradition of advaita: 1 What knowledge gives us knowledge of Ultimate Reality?
What are the means of knowledge, and why is Sruti the ultimate means of knowledge? In this article I will simply give a guided tour of the contents of the adhyAsa bhASyam line by line, and highlight the key messages. My rendering of the bhASyam will be as literal and transparent as possible, so the readers scan judge themselves the true meaning for them. I have found it invaluable committing it to memory, so it constantly flows through all my thoughts. I hope by the end of the article the reader has the same feeling about this text as I.
I have referred in brief to the portions of the bhASya discussed at the start of each section. I have followed the bhASyam in the order it was written. The objection runs as follows: Atman is real, and is the eternal subject I. Everything else is not real, and is perceived as a separate object you yuSmat. Such confusion should be impossible mithyeti bhavitum yuktam.
In other words, shankara tells us " but common experience shows us that we do it all the time! We see duality where in reality there is none, we mistake one thing for another every day". That we do this is not through any mystery but is innate.
The mixing up is adhyAsa. Shankara will later go on to say that this adhyAsa has always been there, and is therefore beginingless. It is important to make an important clarification here. Shankara proceeds on the same basis as the Sruti, which takes it as axiomatic that brahman is the ultimate reality.
We find very few instances where discussions occur to "prove" that the correct view of the world is that there is an Ultimate Reality called brahman. For shankara and the Sruti this was self evident that Atman is self -established swayam prasiddhatwaat.
Viewed from this transcendental viewpoint of reality it is clear why shankara views this mixing of the real and the non real as an error.
All that is required for knowledge is to remove this error to reveal brahman, and the universe will naturally be seen in its true light NB: A side note for the specialists. If you want to stick to the essence of the meaning, skip the next paragraph In this passage we find the first divergence of opinion amongst post shankara commentators. In the panchapAdikA sub-commentary, attributed to padmapAda, the word mithyAjnAna is explained as "mithyA cha tat ajnAnam cha", meaning an unreal ignorance.
The other way to decompose this word is as "mithyA cha tat jnAnam cha", meaning a misconception, or false knowledge. Using the former definition , the sub-commentator has explained that the cause of this adhyAsa or avidyA is some other material caus upAdAna kAraNa that he defines as a mysterious avidyA shakti, that is indescribable anirvachaneeya , and inert jaDAtmikA.
The later writers have used the term mulAvidyA, or Root Ignorance, for this material cause, and equate it with the term mAyA. This gives a different flavour to the nature of avidyA than a literal reading of mithyAjnAna. The question as to whether shankara really meant just false knowledge or something more mysterious is the subject of great debate. This is not the place to go in to this in detail.
I will be explaining the adyAsa bhASyam using the literal meaning of simply false knowledge. By this he wishes to confirm that it is a mental notion. He further goes on to give 3 definitions from tradition: i Some say it is simply the superimposing the qualities of one thing anyadharmAdhyAsah on another anyatra ii Others say it is a a confusion of our faculty to discriminate tat vivekAgraha-nibandhano bhrama iti iii Others further says it is the superimposing 2 things and their attributes that are of opposite nature tasyaiva vipareeta dharmatwa-kalpanAm Achakshate iti Shankara then explains that the common thread running through all definitions is that of confusing one thing and its attributes with another anyasya anydharmAvabhAsatAm na vyabhicharati.
For, it is a matter of common experience tathA cha loke anubhavah , where we all have confused one thing for another. Two examples are given: confusing silver for nacre shuktikA hi rajatavat avabhAsate, and when, due to a trick of the light, one moon is seen as two ekah chandra sad-dwiteeyavat iti Put simply, our ignorance is confusing one thing for another, which in the context of vedanta, is confusing the world of duality for the real world, whereas the real world is one where no duality exists.
This confusion is an experience, and therefore its existence does not need to be proved or disproved. This is why shankara never taxes himself with detailed discussions concerning where does this avidyA come from, and to whom does it belong, as these matters become totally irrelevant once atman is known. Later followers of shankara chose not to let the matter rest, hence the elaborate theories regarding the root cause of avidyA, and various discussions of the locus of avidyA.
One imagines that, should these discussions have happened in front of shankara, he would have given them short shrift by saying something like "its about brahman, not avidyA! But, how can the atman that you claim is ever the subject aviSayatwam bravIshi be confused with something that is the not Atman, expressed as "you"! Shankara has essentially restated the original objection in a different way. His reply is as follows: It is not unusual at all that such superimposition occurs regarding atman na tAvat ayam ekAntena aviSayah , for in empirical life the atman is referred as the object of the "me" notion asmatpratyayaviSayatwAt aparoxatwAt cha.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect that the imperceptible atman that is the eternal subject, can be confused with objective phenomena around us. Now we come to an important part of the bhashya. Shankara here explicitly defines that confusing of the real and the non real, that is adhyAsa tametam evam laxaNam adyAsam , that results in the apparently real world of duality of subjects, objects and means of knowledge , as being called avidyA in the shAstras by the learned paNDItA aviyeti manyante.
In contrast, ascertaining the true nature of things though discrimination is called vidyA tadvivekena cha vastuswarUpAvadhAraNam vidyAm Ahuh. In addition, to clarify, where avidyA operates, it does not in any way affect the substrate at all as a result of the perceived acts, defects, qualities etc that avidyA may imply as being atman Tatraivam sati yatra yadadhyAsah tatkrtena doSeNa guNena vA aNumAtreNApi sa na sambadhyate. Atman is never tainted by the effects of Ignorance We find in the vArtikAs and kArikAs numerous statements that describe avidyA as that which results in a confusion of the real and non real.
There are also descriptions of subtle shades of this false knowledge mithyAjnAna that is avidyA nature of samshaya, of "I do not know" etc, but the core definition of avidyA is that given by shankara here in the bhASyam. In upedasha sAhasrI he beautifully elaborates his definition, to directly link adhyAsa with the world of samsAra and duality: "Twam paramAtmAnam santam asamsAriNam samsAryaham asmIti viparItam pratipadyase, akartAram santam karteti, abhoktAram santam bhokteti, vidyamAnam cha avidyamAnamiti, iyam avidyA" US II 50 "You are the non-transmigratory self, but you wrongly think that you are liable to transmigration.
And was certainly an epiphany for me in my early vedanta studies. For, shankara declares without hesitation that all empirical activities where separate subjects and objects are perceived, sarve pramANa-prameya vyavahArAH , both day to day and vedic laukikAh vaidikAh cha operate in the field of avidyA tametam avidyAkhyam AtmAnAtmanoh iteretaram adhyAsam puraskrtya.
In other words, all discussions of injunctions , vedic ritual including pooja havan, meditation etc, even talk of liberation itself are in the field of ignorance. Why is this so? The response is as follows: Uchyate dehendriyAdiSu…. Since perception and other activities of such a cogniser are not possible without accepting the senses etc as belonging to him na hIndriyANyanupAdAya pratyakshAdivyavahArah sambhavati.
And, since nobody engages in any activity with a body that has not the idea of the self superimposed on it na cha anadhyasta AtmabhAvena dehena kashchit vyApriyate , even though the self it is unattached and cannot become a knower unless there are all of these above notions na cha etasmin sarvasmin asati asangasyAtmanah pramAtrtwam upapadyate.
And since the means of knowledge cannot function without a "knower" na cha pramAtrtwam antareNa, pramANa-pravrittirasti , it therefore follows that all means of knowledge, such as direct perception as well as the shastras are in the field of avidyA, as they are based on the basic adhyAsa that one is a distinct knower tasmAt avidyAvadviSayAnyeva pratyakshAdIni pramANAni shAstrANi cha Put simply, for the means of knowledge to operate, it requres the notion of a doer, and the notion of a doer is the result of superimposition on the unattached Atman.
In other words, as soon as one falsely identifies the self as a pramAtr, ie an agent, or doer, then all fields that operate are in the field of avidyA.
ShAstra, means of knowledge etc, since they require a distinct doer, are therefore bound in the field of avidyA.
Gaudapada declares elsewhere , "mAyAmAtram idam dvaitam, advaitam paramArthatah", this world of duality is false, the supreme reality is advaita. This process of confusing the atman as distinct pramAtr is the subject of adhyAsa bhASyam.
When these notions have been abandoned, the world is in its true light from the standpoint of supreme reality paramArtha drSTI. In the next section of adyAsa bhASyam, shankara amplifies the point that the empirical world conjured through this avidyA is a matter of common experience that we share with all living beings. For animals, when they hear a sound they believe is dangerous, they turn away, and move towards that which seems safe YathA hi pashwAdayah shabdAdibhih shrotrAdInAm sambandhe sati shabdAdivijnAne pratikUle jAte tato navartante, anukUle cha pravartante , and they turn towards someone holding green grass, and shie away from one holding a stick, thinking that they will be beaten yathA daNdodyakaram puruSam abhimukham upalabhya, mAm hantum ayam icchhatIti palAyitum Arabhante, harita-trNa-pUrNa-pANim upalabhya tam pratyabhimukhI bhavanti.
In the same way wise humans are repelled by strong, riotous people with menacing looks and swords drawn, but drawn to those opposite in nature evam puruSa api vyutpannachittAh krUradrSTIn Akroshatah kaDgodyatakarAn balavata upalabhya tato nivartante, tatviparItAn prati pravartante. From this we can conclude that from the empirical standpoint, the means of perception employed by the wise and animals are identical tat samAnyadarshanAt vyutpattimatAm api puruSANAm pratyakshAdivyavahArah tatkAlah samAnah iti nischIyate So, what is the point of the above?
Simply to say that the instinctive behaviour of humans in the empirical field is due to a series of misconceptions due to a non-discrimination between the Atman and the non-Atman, and that humans share this behaviour with the rest of the animal kingdom. Now humans, apart from their faculty of discrimination, must be different somehow, and therefore not subject to avidyA?
Shankara deals with this objection in the next section. However, such a person has not cognized the true self which, according to vedanta, is beyond hunger and thirst, beyond the distinctions of caste, and beyond the notions of rebirth from one life to the next tathApi na vedAntavedyam, ashanAyAdyatItam, apetabrahmakshatrAdibhedam, asamsAryAtmatattwam adhikAre apekshyate.
In fact, the ultimate knowledge that Atman as a non-agent is not only a useless notion for one engaged in acts to be performed, but is in fact diammetrically opposite to it! So, all human behaviour, whether secular, vedic or employing means of valid knowledge are in the realm of avidyA.
Now, it is clarified that even the shAstra laying out injunctions also operate in the field of ignorance. For, in the example injunction "a brahmin should offer sacrifice", the notion of caste, being an agent, being at a certain stage in life, etc have first to be superimposed on the changeless, eternal Atman before such a sentence can make any sense!
In contrast, such activities must presuppose a distinct notion "I am doing such and such", which puts them in the field of ignorance. Shankara elsewhere explains that, when such acts are performed without desire for fruit, by recognising the there is no "doer", then they inculcate the desire for brahmavidya, which takes the aspirant closer to realising the message of vedanta.
Shankara now gives various examples of this adhyAsa, which he defines again as the cognition of one thing as something else adhyAso nAma atasminstadbuddhih ityavochAma. The first example is one where, when family members are sick or well, we feel sick or well too, because of the attachment tadyathA putrabhAryAdiSu vikaleSu sakaleSu vA, aham eva vikalah sakalo vA iti bahyadharmAn atmanyadhyasyati.
Finally, the attributes of the internal organ , when one superimposes the notions of will, doubt, perseverance etc tathA antahkaraNadharmAn: kAma-sankalpa. In this way , one firstly superimposes the internal organ possesed of the ego notion, on the innermost Atman which is the eternal Witness evam ahampratyayinam asheSaswaprachArasAkshiNI pratyagAtmanyadhyasa , and then in the opposite direction, one superimposes on the internal organ that Atman which opposed to non-Atman, and is the witness of everything tam cha pratyagAtmAnam sarvasAkhiNam tadviparyayeNa antahkaraNAdishwadhyasyati.
Here, shankara comes full circle, and reiterates the opening section of adhyAsa bhASyam, showing how the Atman, the Witness that is ever unattached, can be confused to be the notion "me", and be confused with the non-Atman expressed as objects, or the notion "you". These examples only are given to show it is a matter of common experience that we mistake one thing for another.
Elsewhere, the example of the rope and snake is given. In particular, we confuse the Atman with that which is non-Atman.