Upadesa Sahasri is considered a famous Vedantic text as it contains the essence of the teaching of the Upanishads, dealt with in an elaborate manner.
Authored by Adi Sankara, it is in two parts--one in prose form (gadhya bhaga) and the other in verse or metric form (padhya bhaga). In the metrical form, there are 675 verses, spread over 19 chapters.
Each chapter, known as prakarana, deals with one topic. Most of the prakaranas are small except the 18th chapter, entitled Tat Tvam Asi Prakarana, which analyses the Mahavakya with 233 verses.
What It Means
2. The expression, Sahasri (a thousand), is not to be taken literally but has been used in the sense of many verses (Bahvarte Sahasram). Upadesa has several meanings, the most popular being related to initiation of a mantra for meditation (japa), known as mantra upadesa, where the student is just given a mantra for mental or oral chanting (japa).
The upadesa has to be understood as a consistent and significant process of teaching for a length of time involving study and enquiry by the student, who needs to understand and assimilate what is revealed by the teacher.
Vedantic upadesa is a structured study of the mahavakyas contained in the Upanishads, where one has to employ analysis, enquiry, reasoning, skills of interpretation and grammar to clearly arrive at the intended import of the Vedantic statements, which are terse and brief. Vedanatic statements are not intended for mere japa, but are meant for learning and understanding.
4. In this and the articles to follow, a chapterwise summary of the text will be presented, based on talks given by Swami Paramatmananda (a reputed teacher and well-known disciple of Swami Dayananda Sarasvati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam) over a period of five years to his regular students. A summary of the contents of the first chapter is given in the following paragraphs.
5. The first chapter of 26 verses is titled Upodgatha Prakaranam (introduction). It serves to introduce the subject matter, Brahma Vidya (knowledge about Self), which is the core of Vedanta.
6. For convenience of study, the first chapter can be divided under six heads 1. Verses 1 and 2 forming part of Mangala Sloka (invocation) and avatarika (preface); 2. Verses 3 to 5 establishing that Self- knowledge is the only means for liberation; 3. Verses 6 and 7 explaining how karma (action) cannot by itself give freedom; (4) Verses 8 to 11 presenting the views of those who consider that it is necessary to combine karma with jnanam in the pursuit of liberation (jnana karma samuchaya vada); 5. Verses 12 to 24 where the author refutes the jnana karma samuchaya vada and 6. Verses 25 and 26 in the form of conclusion (upasamhara), exhorting the seekers to take to jnana yoga and providing a definition for the term, Upanishad.
7. In the first verse, which is invocatory (mangala sloka), the author offers prostration to the attributeless (nirguna) Brahman, which is of the nature of all-pervading and all-knowing consciousness, available for recognition in the minds of all beings and transcending everything material in the creation.
Invocation verses in our tradition generally are in the form of blessing (asirvada), prostration (namaskara) and present a vision of the truth (vastu nirdesa). This verse falls under the second and also the third categories, as it contains a definition of Brahman. Its purpose is to seek the Lord’s blessings for removal of obstacles to the compilation and for the spreading of the teaching.
The second verse introduces the subject matter , saying that the end portion of the Vedas (Vedanta) offers the teaching of Self-knowledge after the prior part (Veda Purva) has dealt with Vedic rituals (vaidika karma).
8. In Verses 3 to 5, the author describes briefly the cause of bondage (samsara karanam), nature of bondage (samsara svarupam) and the remedy (samsara nivritti). The human problem of bondage is due to ignorance of our real nature and identification with the body-mind complex which leads to a sense of limitation and promotes an unending desire to get over this sense of inadequacy.
This in turn entangles us in a vicious circle of actions born of raga/dvesha (likes and dislikes), resulting in punya/papa, causing a perennial cycle of birth and death, rebirth and so on. As ignorance of the Self is the problem, the only solution is Self-knowledge (knowledge of Brahman).
Verses 6 and 7 elaborate that karma (action) cannot remove bondage as it is not opposed to ignorance. The urge to act is born of likes and dislikes, a product of ignorance of the Self and, therefore, cannot obviously remove ignorance.
Knowledge and Karma
9. Vedanta’s settled position is that Self-knowledge itself is capable of giving liberation and does not need the support of any other means. However, there have been philosophers with the view that knowledge will have to be combined with karma to give the result of freedom.
Sankaracharya presents in Verses 8 to 11 their arguments in support of their stand--jnana karma samuchaya vada. They argue that as karmas are enjoined by the Vedas (scriptures) a vaidika cannot give up actions, which should be performed along with the pursuit of Self-knowledge. They argue that such karmas support jnana in achieving liberation. They also say that the Vedas talk of a special type of sin (known as pratyavaya papa) in case karmas as laid down in the Vedas are not performed.
They cite the example of a Vedic ritual called Agnishtoma, the performance of which is certain to produce definite and immediate results (just like jnana as claimed by Vedanta) but still depends on
several more actions, such as recital of Vedic hymns and chanting of certain verses (parayanam) and invoking some devatas.
‘Not for Jnanis’
10. Sankaracharya strongly refutes in Verses 12 to 24 all their arguments. First he points out that the Vedic injunctions relating to performance of karma (Veda vidhi) are applicable only to those who are ignorant of the real Self (Atma ajnanis) and, therefore, identify with their body-mind complex and subject themselves to the varna ashrama discipline, while the wise people (jnanis), because of their knowledge, have transcended varna ashrama status.
Second, knowledge is opposed to karma as the latter invokes doership (kartrutvam) while the former by definition makes one renounce doership. The wise man knows his essential nature of consciousness, Atma, which is changeless.
Again, knowledge takes place automatically by the mere operation of the appropriate means and the presence of the object to be known (technically known as vastu tantram) and no separate action is called for. On the other hand, performance of actions depends on the doer and a host of other accessories, such as materials, time, place, etc. (technically known as Purusha Tantram).
As for the special sin (pratyaya papa) talked about for non-performance of enjoined karmas, this provision also applies only to the ignorant people (ajnanis) who have a sense of doership and cannot affect a jnani, who is aware of his non-doership status.
Lastly, the example of agnistoma is not appropriate (It becomes a vishama dristanta) as such rituals require the support of materials and accessories and subsidiary actions and differ in the quality of result of each performance.
11. The author in conclusion states in Verse 25 that for the reasons already highlighted, he proposes to continue with the teaching related to the knowledge of Brahman in order that the student is enabled to remove his Self-ignorance and consequently the bondage he is suffering from.
The last verse of the chapter (Verse 26) provides a grammatical derivation for the term Upanishad. The basic root of the word is sad with two prefixes, upa and ni, and a suffix, kwip. The expression, sad, with the suffix has three meanings, which are 1. to loosen, 2. to destroy and 3. to lead. The prefix, upa, means ‘immediate’ (samipataha) and ni stands for nischayam (definite). The final meaning of the term, Upanishad, is accordingly given in the verse as a teaching which immediately and definitely 1. loosens the knot of bondage and 2. destroys rebirth and 3. leads to the attainment of Brahman.
Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.