Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

of shrI vidyAraNya svAmi

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Sri Vidyaranya Swami flourished in the fourteenth century A.D. He was the guru as well as the Prime Minister of Harihara I and Bukka, the founders of the Vijayanagara Kingdom. He is reputed to be the greatest among post-Sankara Advaitins. He was the head of the Sringeri Sarada Pitha established by Sri Adi Sankara Bhagavatpada from 1377 to 1386 A.D. Panchadasi is one of the works attributed to him. This work is so named because it consists of fifteen chapters. It is a comprehensive manual of advaita vedAnta. The fundamental teachings of advaita are presented in this work in a clear and lucid manner. It is therefore the best text for the novice who desires to get acquainted with this philosophy. At the same time the work is very profound and is of interest to advanced students of advaita as well.

The fifteen chapters of this work are divided into three groups of five chapters each. brahman or the supreme Self, which is the only reality according to advaita, is described in the upaniShad as existence-consciousness-bliss. The first group of five chapters deals with the existence aspect of brahman, the second group with the consciousness aspect and the third with the bliss aspect.

The core of advaita is that brahman is the only reality. 'Reality' is defined as that which does not undergo any change at any time. By this test, brahman, which is absolutely changeless and eternal, is alone real. The world keeps on changing all the time and so it cannot be considered as real. At the same time, we cannot dismiss it as unreal, because it is actually experienced by us. The example of a rope being mistaken for a snake in dim light is used to explain this. The snake so seen produces the same reaction, such as fear and trembling of the limbs, as a real snake would. It cannot, therefore, be said to be totally unreal. At the same time, on examination with the help of a lamp it is found that the snake never existed and that the rope alone was there all the time. The snake cannot be described as both real and unreal, because these two contradictory qualities cannot exist in the same substance. It must, therefore, be said that the snake is neither real nor unreal. Such an object is described as mithyA. Just as the snake appears because of ignorance of the fact that there is only a rope, this world appears to exist because of our ignorance of brahman. Thus the world is also neither real nor unreal; it is also mithyA. Just as the snake is superimposed on the rope, the world is superimposed on brahman.

Our ignorance of brahman is what is called avidyA or aj~nAna or nescience. This ignorance not only covers brahman, but it projects the world as a reality. The world has no reality apart from brahman, just as the snake has no reality apart from the rope. When the knowledge of brahman arises, the world is seen as a mere appearance of brahman. Another example may be taken to explain this. Ornaments of different sizes and shapes are made out of one gold bar. Their appearance and the use for which they are meant vary, but the fact that they are all really only gold, in spite of the different appearances and uses, cannot be denied. The appearance may change, a bangle may be converted into rings, but the gold always remains as gold. Similarly, on the dawn of the knowledge of brahman (which is the same as the Self), though the different forms of human beings, animals, etc., continue to be seen by the j~nAnI , he sees them all only as appearances of the one brahman. Thus the perception of difference and the consequences of such perception, such as looking upon some as favourable and others as the opposite, and the consequent efforts to retain or get what is favourable and to get rid of or avoid what is not favourable, come to an end. This is the state of liberation even while living, which is known as jIvanmukti.

The jIva, or individual, is brahman itself, but because of identification with the body, mind and senses he looks upon himself as different from brahman and as a limited being, subject to joys and sorrows caused by external factors. This identification with the body, mind and senses is what is called bondage. In reality the jIva is the pure brahman and is different from the body-mind complex. When this truth is realized as an actual experience, the identification with the body-mind complex ceases. This is liberation. Thus liberation is not the attainment of a state which did not exist previously, but only the realization of what one has always been. The illusory snake never existed. What existed even when the snake was seen was only the rope. Similarly, bondage has no real existence at all. Even when we are ignorant of brahman and think of ourselves as limited by the body, we are really none but the infinite brahman. Liberation is thus only the removal of the wrong identification with the body, mind and senses. The attainment of the state of liberation-in-life or jIvanmukti is the goal of human life according to the upaniShad.

mAyA, which is also known by other names such as prakRRiti, avidyA and nescience, is what conceals brahman and projects the universe. It is because of this that every one identifies himself with his body-mind complex and is ignorant of the truth that he is none other than brahman. Sri Vidyaranya points out that mAyA may be looked upon from three different standpoints. For the ordinary worldly individual who looks upon the world as real, mAyA which is the cause of the appearance of the world is real. For the enlightened person who has realized his identity with brahman, mAyA does not exist at all. For the person who attempts to understand mAyA through reasoning, mAyA is indeterminable because it cannot be described as either real or unreal or both.

There is a wrong notion that according to advaita the world is a mere illusion. What advaita says is that the world is not real in the sense in which brahman is real. advaita accepts three orders of reality. brahman, which is eternal and changeless, is the absolute reality, known in vedAnta as pAramArthika satyam. The world has empirical reality, known as vyAvahArika satyam, which means that as long as a person has not become free from avidyA and has not realized his real nature as brahman, the world is real for him. It is on this basis that all the rituals, injunctions and prohibitions laid down in the veda become applicable to such a person. In other words, until a person realizes that he is not the body or mind or senses but brahman, the world is real for him. The object of vedAnta is to make man give up his wrong identification with the body and realize his true nature. What is meant here is not mere intellectual knowledge, but actual experience, which is otherwise known as realization.

The third order of reality consists of such cases as a rope appearing as a snake, a piece of nacre being mistaken for silver, and the experiences in dream. This order of reality is known as prAtibhAsika satyam.

Panchadasi is a metrical work in Sanskrit. In the following chapters a summary of this work, chapter by chapter, is given. It is hoped that this will serve as an introduction to the work and will motivate the reader to go on to a detailed study, verse by verse.

End of Introduction

Chapter 1

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