Monday, March 27, 2017


The Being of Satchidananda: Sankara’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras
by Vijaya Rajivaon 23 Mar 20178 Comments
Indian philosophy has always been preoccupied with the question of what or who is the Ultimate Reality behind the everyday experiences of life and what is the human relationship to this reality? This question was broadly framed: does such an Ultimate Reality exist, what is its nature and how do humans relate to this reality?

The quest began with the Veda, the collective name for the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), the prose commentaries of the Brahmanas, the forest treatises referred to as Aranyakas, ending with the Upanishads. The quest continued with the various writings on Vedic ritual such as Jaimini Sutras and the contemporaneous attempt by Badarayana to unify the teachings of the Veda in his Brahma Sutras. This was followed by many commentaries (Bhashyas), the most famous of them being the Bhashya of Adi Sankara (8th century CE) and Ramanuja (13th century CE).

Shortly after the end of the Vedic period, there arose the philosophical systems (Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Yoga, Jaina, Carvaka and Bauddha, which were independent philosophical enquiries into the nature of Ultimate Reality). Among these systems only the Carvaka was dismissive of philosophical speculation on the nature of Ultimate Reality and offered a purely materialistic explanation of life and its problems.

Among these systems the Sankhya system alone accepted the authority of the Veda and in fact used the Veda to uphold its philosophical position that there are two independent ultimate realities, the inactive intelligentPurusha and the active non intelligent Pradhana (Prakriti/Nature) and these two realities interacted to produce the universe and its beings. This position is known as Dualism.

Collectively, these systems challenged the Veda and its emphasis on Brahman/Satchidananda as the one Ultimate Reality. Satchidananda is a compound word that describes Sat (that which exists), Chit (that which is Conscious) and Ananda (that which is Blissful). The system known as Vedanta upheld the unity of Satchidanda and hence was non dualistic or Advaita. It became the central theme of Adi Sankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, and may be said to have laid (along with his interpretation of the Upanishads) the foundation of Advaita Vedanta. In the commentary, Sankara refers to Brahman (the Upanishadic word for Satchidananda), thus following Badarayana. On this interpretation there is only one reality, Brahman, which is the origin, subsistence and dissolution of the universe.

While it is customary to focus attention on the differences between Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism) and Ramanuja’s Vishistadvaita (Qualified Dualism), here we shall briefly examine Sankara’s theory of the Being (Sat, that which exists) of Satchidananda as seen in his Commentary.

Following Badarayana, he describes Brahman as the origin, maintainer and dissolver of the world and that it is the sole reality (no second one exists). This rejects the Sankhya theory that there are two independent realities, Purusha and Pradhana (Prakriti). It is also a spiritual-conscious reality and hence it rejects the materialism of Carvaka, namely that the world is simply a material entity. It rejects the Nyaya-Vaisekhatheory of the separate reality of the material world as evolving from atoms. It also rejects the Jaina and Bauddha theories.

Where Sankara’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras is completely clear is his argument that Brahman as Self (Paramatman) is the cause of the world in a special sense. That world is not independent of Brahman and in fact has been created by Brahman as part of its magical power (Maya) and to that extent is illusory, has no independent reality.

Readers will note that it is precisely here that Ramanuja differed from Sankara. He argued that the magical power is real not illusory and that the individual Selves (jivas) and the world of many beings are a modification of Brahman. However, this position seems to be a misrepresentation of Sankara’s position, which as pointed out, is arguing that the world is not an independent reality but is the result of the magical, abundant power of Brahman. The word Maya carries the meaning of ‘abundance’.

In the traditional misreading of Adi Sankara’s position, it has been argued against him that the vivartadoctrine (that Brahman’s change is illusory) is contradictory and that parinama (real change) alone can explain the world. However, in the Commentary it would seem that what Sankara is emphasising is that for humans (individual jivas) to think that they are independent realities in relation to Brahman is Ignorance or Nescience. Understanding this is Liberation. Hence the Upanishadic truth that this Atman is Brahman (ayam atma brahma).

The achievement of the Commentary is the refutation of dualism, specifically the Sankhya argument thatPradhana and Purusha are two eternal coexisting realities, with Pradhana or Prakriti being active but non intelligent, and Purusha being inactive but intelligent. Sankara’s refutation is done through showing that Sankhya is misrepresenting the Veda.

Sankhya is misrepresenting the Veda:

1. The enquiry into Brahman with which the Brahma Sutras begin propounds the following aphorism:
‘Brahman is that from which the origin &c (the origin, subsistence, and dissolution) of this world proceed’ (pp.15-16).1.

After pointing out that cause, we say is Brahman, (pps.15-16) Sankara goes on to say:
“The origin, &c of a world possessing the attributes stated above cannot possibly proceed from anything else but a Lord possessing the stated qualities; not either from a non-intelligent pradhana, or from atoms, or from non-being, or from a being subject to transmigration; nor again, can it proceed from its own nature (i.e. spontaneously, without a cause), since we observe that (the production of effects) special places, times, and causes have invariably to be employed”(pps.16-17).

What Sankara means by ‘special places, times, and causes’ is that there is agency in Brahman.

2. Brahman is omniscient and is the source of the Veda (Scripture): Badarayana asserts this and Sankara follows up with this observation:
“Brahmans is the source ,i.e., the cause of the great body of Scripture, consisting of the Rig-Veda and other branches, which is supporting by various disciplines (such as grammar, nyayapurana, &c); which lamp like illuminates all things; which is itself all-knowing as it were” (pps.19-20).

The theme of illumination will be taken up later when discussing the question of Brahman being self-luminous like the sun. Citing from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad he continues: “The Rig Veda, &c, have been breathed forth from that great Being (p.20). After a prolonged discussion on the means of right knowledge of Brahman, Sankara points out:

“It, therefore, is the task of the Vedanta texts to set forth Brahman’s nature, and they perform that task by teaching us that Brahman is eternal, all-knowing, absolutely self-sufficient, ever pure, intelligent and free, pure knowledge, absolute bliss” (p.25).

He goes on to say that sastra teaches devout meditation on this Brahman and from this results final release from samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth)

3. Final Release:

What does Sankara mean by final release? He quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II,4,5: ‘The Self is to be heard, to be considered, to be reflected upon’. By Self he means Paramatman, the Universal Self. We see from this passage, says Sankara, that consideration and reflection have to follow the mere hearing (p.26). Hence, devout meditation and reflection will ensure final release from samsara:

“Release is an eternally disembodied state. It is eternal in the sense that it does not undergo changes, is omnipresent as ether, free from all modifications, absolutely self-sufficient, not composed of parts, of self-luminous nature (p.28).

Furthermore, release follows immediately on the cognition of Brahman: ‘He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman’ Sankara quotes from Mu.Upanishad, II,2,8 (p.29).

4. Brahman as omniscient Knower:

Brahman is the eternal Knower, simultaneously existing and all knowing. It is also blissful. Brahman’s Being and Consciousness are simultaneous and identical.

The Significance of Sankara’s Refutation of Sankhya:

In our times the idea that Pradhana (Nature) is active but non-intelligent is outlandish and outmoded. Even modern science recognises that Nature is a complex interaction of matter and energy. Sankara’s non-dualism, the affirmation of Satchidananda emphasises that Consciousness is Brahman (prajnanam brahma) and that this Consciousness is all pervasive. Contemporary physics, especially Quantum Physics, no longer operates only with the matter-energy-space-time complex, but has focussed on the role of the observer in experiments and hence the role of Consciousness.

Quantum Physics now works with the concept of a living, conscious universe. Non duality is the key word in contemporary physics.

A living conscious universe is one and in Adi Sankara’s view it is the Being of Satchidananda.

1. All references are from George Thibaut’s translation of the Vedanta Sutras, Part 1, The Sacred Books of the East, at Google Books, Volume 34, Oxford University Press.
User CommentsPost a Comment
The dating of Adi Sankara in the 8th Century is disputed. He is placed by Hindu sources at some 300 years after the Buddha.
March 23, 2017
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I totally reject the ONENESS philosophy of sankara, because it is a mirror of budhist/jaina philosophy of nirvana. Ramanujar rightly said, that Sankara is a prachanna baudha, ie.. the hidden buddha..

Budhism says that there is no GOD and human's fate is decided purely by their karma. Sankara also says the same, but imposes a just superior force that rightly delivers the fruits of one's karma without any partiality.

But I challenge the very basis of karma theory which has no reference in the vedas and upanishads or in any of the ithihasa. Also there is no concept of moksha in the vedas. all these invention of budhism escapism.

I have challenged many to quote any references in the vedic literature about the modern version of karma theory . So far no one could give me any references.

The puranas and Ithihasas, only mentions the swarga or naraga, and NOT about the moksha.

Also in the vaideeha tradition, the people say an atma would be reborn in the same kulam/gothra or family lineage. The common people consider the grandchildren as the reborn atma of their grandfather or ancestors.

The Hinduism as propogated today by hindutvavadis is nothing but budhism in disguise. The karma theory is NOT vedic, and is a oppressive ideology being imposed.

While the christianity claims that their GOD can save a person from the sin, the hollow hinduism which is defined as per one's convenience, says that everyone has to bear the fruits of their past karma.

On the other hand, both shaivam and vaishnava religion says that their GOD can save their bhakths from the sins, through pariharams and appropriate poojas.

But these shaivite and vaishnavite identities are brutally crushed by the hindutvavaadis, by calling everything as hinduism.

Had we seen any hindu intellectuals ever accept a krishna temple as vaishnava temple or madhwa temple? They would only say it is a Hindu temple, which is an internal onslaught of native identities.

So i am once again challenging the hindutva stereotypes for the nth time in this vijayvaani magazine.

1. Show me any proof of modern day version of karma theory in vedas or upanishads.

2. Show me any reference of Moksha in the vedas or upanishads.

3. Show me any reference of "HIndu" identity in pre-colonial texts used by our people.
March 23, 2017
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Very interesting question Sri Senthil. Let me now ask you a question:
have you read the Brahma Sutras and the commentary by Adi Sankara ?
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
March 23, 2017
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I want my questions to be answered first, as i dont want to divert the discussion. My questions are more fundamental and NOT brahmasutras.
March 25, 2017
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Dear Dr. Rajiva:

I have sensed a contradiction in your presentation of Brahman -
Satchidananda as "inactive" and then using many descriptions which
implies "creates", etc. The syntax is not appropriate if we see the world as originating from the Brahman than to say the Brahman creates or created this world. You surely understand where I am going with this.

Inactive agency cannot be given many active roles.

Secondly I have no objections to the word "Conscious" "Being", "Supreme Consciousness." Yet, I would have some difficulty with
the word "Intelligent". The quality of all knowing or "knowledge" is
a subjective experience of "Chid" and also the "Bliss" is the subjective
experience of the seeker which are attributed to "inert" Brahman which is essentially "gunatrayaateeta" and has no qualities at all.
So, there is self-contradiction even in this realm.

Maya and avidya are processes in the Prakrity or Pradhana and the products of Dhee and Mahadhee the individual intelligence and Universal Intelligence and therefore are components of Prakrity (Pradhana) and not to be attributed to Pusrusha or the equivalent of Brahman the "inert" "inactive" "qualityless" "Nirguna" entity. Maya and avidya originate only in the Prackrity which is saguna. The only debate can be whether the Prakrity itself originate from Purusha or Brahman, or is it a separate independently existing entity that draws into its operation the Prusha as a component to manifest the biosphere of conscious sentient beings of all sorts. Prakrity space-time-mass-energy complex by itself does not become modified into living beings and needs addition or interaction with Purusha (Brahman) or consciousness and has to rely on some form of intellignece (dhee) for its design. So the duality of dvaita or even the Vishistha Advaita are based on the foundation of Purusha and Brahman and hence the debate becomes defunct when one takes side with advaita or davita proponents. Therefore, the entire debate is bypassed by the Buddhists as a product of Maya by using the concept of Shunya for the Ultimate Reality where the Shunya and Infinity merge in ONE Reality. So, there is no real contradiction between the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu philosophies whether one accepts the concept of Karma or not. Karma is distinctly a later rationalization to explain away many of the inconsistencies that challenge the attribution of Universal Love and Compassion and a sense of Justice and an attitude of equal dealings with all living beings and their experiences in the real world, "Sansara." Karma theory actually corrupts both the Advaita and Dviita philosophies.

Having said that, your article raised more questions than answered for any for those who have some familiarity with the Advaita philosophy whether he/she has read the original Badarayana's Brahmasutra or Shankara's commentary or not.

Simple, honest, and humble suggestion is not to fall into the trap of using colonial Western concepts and Western lens to understand
the original Hindu philosophical texts although the Western translators have their own merit as superior scholars.

English language has its own problems, besides inherent problems in any language trying to express the nature of the ineffable entity of Brahman that can only by experienced and cannot be accurately expressed as to its nature in any language.

However, I congratulate you for undertaking this stupendous task.

Thanks for any further clarification.


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@No kidding 101

Thankyou for the comments.

The interaction between Purusha and Pradhana(Prakriti) is a Sankhya concept and Adi Sankara is refuting that.

For him (and he repeats this in the Bhashya)Satchidananda is ONE, and there is no second. He agrees with Badarayana that Brahman is the origin, the maintainer and dissolver of the world. Hence, Pradhana comes out of Brahman.

I see no contradiction in that. And as my article states(from Adi Sankara himself) this Brahman is all knowing, conscious and blissful.
It is Sat, Chit and Ananda.

The Buddhis theory of Shunya is quite different from this.

Re: Maya, the Bhashya has some 20 pages on this. It is equated with the word 'abundance'.

I hope you can get to read the Bhashya, even the Thibaut translation which is considered the best English translation. I found Swami Gambirananda's translation unreadable because it is not a 'translation'. It is a point presentation which presents his interpretation of the Bhashya.

I look forward to discussing the topic with you once you have read the Bhashya.
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
22 Hours ago
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Western authors will and want to equate
Brahman as God the creator of the Universe.
Also give Him the attributes familiar to them from their study of the Bible. We don't need to fall for that.
19 Hours ago
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The quotes are all from the Upanishads, supporting Adi Sankara's arguments.

Please remember that an inactive Purusha and an active Prakriti are Sankhya concepts, not Vedanta. Sankhya is dualistic, while Vedanta is monistic, whether it is Sankara, Ramanuja, Vallabha, Nimbarkar et al.

Further, if you have read Ramanuja's Bhashya(as I have) here too the Vedantic arguments are similar.

I have checked out many of the translations by Hindu authors, notably the Swamis from various mathas.

The first key lines from the Brahma Sutras are what I have quoted above : Brahman is the originator, sustainer and dissolver of the universe.

What the relationship is between the jivas and Brahman is what is different in the various Vedantic schools : advaita, vishistadvaita,bheda-bheda and so on.

Otherwise,all of them agree on Brahman being the Ultimate Reality.
Nothing to do with the Bible or Western authors etc.
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
6 Hours ago
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