Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 20

Right Way to Gain Self-knowledge


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Read Part 19 of the series...

Atma being subtle and difficult to comprehend, the seeker needs a highly purified mind.

  The 17th chapter of Upadesa Sahasri has  89 verses and is titled Samyag Jnana Prakaranam (Topic of Right Knowledge). 

Adi Sankara, the universal guru and the author of the treatise, terms the knowledge that jeevatma is essentially identical with paramatma, alone as the right knowledge.  It has to be gained by a  study of the scriptures (sastra vichara) under the guidance of a competent acharya (guru upadesam).  This vision alone is repeatedly referred to as samyag darsanam (right vision) in his bhashyas on the Upanishad and Gita. A summary of this chapter is presented in the following paragraphs.

Invocation to God, Guru

The author begins with an invocation (mangala charanam) of the Lord (Isvara) and his own teacher (guru) in verses 1 to 3, seeking their blessings for successful completion of the work.  Invocatory verses are generally in the form of prostrations to the Lord and the guru.  Sometimes, they also contain statements revealing the ultimate reality (vastu nirdesyam). 

The first verse of this chapter is one such, where the author makes a mention of the Sruti revelation that Atma (Brahman) cannot be known as any other object in creation, but needs to be claimed as one’s real nature (the very subject itself).

The author also prostrates to Isvara, who is none other than Brahman associated with Maya, and, therefore, is the only all-knowing and all-powerful cause of the creation (sarvajna sarvasaktiman jagat karanam).

In the second verse, he offers salutations to the entire guru parampara--comprising the Lord, the adi guru and ancient rishis, including all subsequent acharyas who revealed the essential truth.  He glorifies them as being endowed with expertise in the relevant sastras, (such as  pramana, pada and vakya) which are useful for proper interpretation of the scriptural texts, which expound the real nature of Atma.

In the third verse, he pays respects to his own guru, listening to whose teaching his ignorance was destroyed just as darkness is  removed by the rays of the effulgent sun.

Nitya Ananda Svarupa

In Verses 4 to 6, the author establishes that liberation (moksha) is the greatest human goal (parama purushartha).  Moksha is described as Atma labha (gaining of Atma)  or Atma prapti.  It is gaining the knowledge that I am of the nature of eternal happiness (nitya ananda svarupa). 

The logic for this is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where sage Yajnavalkya makes the famous declaration, “It is only on account of the love for one’s self that everything becomes dear” (atmanastu kamaya sarvam priyam bhavati).  The law is that whatever is an object of unconditional love is a source of ananda.  Self-love is unconditional and universal.  Therefore, Self or Atma has to be of the nature of ananda.

Verses 7 to 21 talk about the means of gaining liberation (moksha sadhanam).  Self-knowledge (Atma jnanam) is the only means for mokhsa prapti or Atma labha.  As I am Atma, Atma labha or mokhsa is only a matter of discovery of this fact and, therefore, knowledge alone is the means for liberation.  Other sadhanas, such as karma or upasana, cannot give liberation by themselves.

The author stresses that Vedanta (Upanishads) alone is the means for gaining Self-knowledge.  Thus, Sastra or Sruti alone is the pramanam for Atma jnanam, as all other worldly (loukika) pramanams can reveal only the material world of objects.

Means of Knowledge

Verses 22 to 84 form the content of the central theme of the chapter where the following topics are discussed.

1. Means for gaining knowledge (jnana sadhanani)

2. Nature of knowledge (jnana svarupam)

3. Benefit of knowledge (jnana phalam)

The author explains five sadhanas.  First, he observes that Atma  being extremely subtle and difficult to comprehend, the seeker needs a highly purified and subtle mind.  What he means is that the seeker should first gain the four-fold qualifications for pursuit of Self-knowledge, generally known as sadhana chatushtaya sampatti, comprising viveka, vairagya, the six-fold discipline of mind control (sama), sense control (dama), withdrawal from worldly pursuits (uparati), tolerance (titiksha) and sraddha (faith in scriptures and guru’s teaching) and intense desire for liberation (mumukshutvam). 

The first sadhana is karma nivritti (reduction of vaidika and loukika karmas).  While initially one has to engage in performance of actions enjoined by the Vedas, and that too as karma yoga, once he gains purity of mind, he should gradually withdraw from actions to get a mind which is free from worldly preoccupations and can, therefore, be directed to Vedanta vichara. 

Limitations of Karma

The author makes clear the limitations of karma and how it cannot take a seeker to liberation.  Karma can provide only four types of results--production (utpadyam), acquisition (prapti), transformation (vikaryam), and purification (samskaryam) of something.  As the Self (Atma) is neither produced nor is available for acquisition and is free from modification and is ever pure, karma cannot give Self-knowledge. 

The author then talks about austerities (tapas) as an important sadhana.  Lord Krishna has clearly defined austerities at the mental, vocal and physical levels (manasa, vachika and kayika tapas) in the 17th Chapter of the Gita (verses 14 to 17).  This will help in integrating one’s personality and gaining all the noble attributes.  The author makes particular mention of one-pointedness (ekagrata) of the mind and sense organs as the supreme austerity (paramam tapas).

A qualified student should approach a competent teacher (guru upasadanam) and request him to  teach Self knowledge.  It becomes clear, therefore, that self study or meditation by the seeker himself will not help. In support of this view, the author refers to a mantra in Chandogya Upanishad (6.14.2) which declares that only that seeker who has been taught by a guru will gain knowledge (acharyavan  veda). 

There is also the famous verse in the Gita (Chapter 4, Verse 34) which says that a seeker should know Brahman by approaching a guru in all humility and reverence and expose himself to the teaching.

Scriptural study under the guidance of a teacher is the next stage. It must be systematic and consistent for a length of time.  This process is known as sravanam, where one gains the knowledge of his real nature through the revelations of the scripture from  the guru.  The next process is removal of all intellectual and logical doubts/contradictions related to the teaching by internal reflection with the guidance of the guru so that this knowledge becomes a doubtless conviction.  This is known as mananam.  This is followed by nididhyasanam, where the seeker exclusively dwells on the teaching in a structured way over long periods so that the teaching is assimilated and internalised,  and the tendency to consider oneself as a limited and mortal physical being confined to the boundaries of the body-mind complex is  removed.

Nature of the Self

Here the author devotes numerous  verses to highlight the nature of the Self, the subject matter of knowledge (jnana svarupam).  Atma is presented as the self-evident Witness Consciousness (svaprakasa sakshi chaitanyam) which is partless and is free from modification.

 Other features, such as being eternal (nityatvam), freedom from attributes (nirgunatvam), all-pervasiveness (sarvagatatvam), being free from sorrow (dukkha rahitatvam)  are highlighted.  The Self is also described as akarta (free from action), abhokta (free from any results of action), infinite (anantam), ever free (nitya muktatvam) and not being available for acquisition or rejection (heyo-padaya varjita).

The author quotes from the Upanishads and other scriptures to support the revelations (Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, Mundaka and Mandukya passages are heavily relied upon). 

The benefit of Self-knowledge (jnana phalam) is freedom from dependence on external factors for happiness (kama nivritti).  Another benefit is freedom from fear (bhaya nivritti).  A wise person will not be subject to rebirth (janma nivritti).  The author glorifies jnanis as being their own masters, adored even by the gods. 

Verses 85 to 89 extol the supremacy of Self-knowledge as the only means for liberation and as a great secret (rahasyam) because very few endeavour to gain it and, even amongst the rare seekers, only a few are successful.  There is also a note of caution that the teaching of this knowledge should be imparted only to qualified seekers (sadhana chatushtaya sampanna adhikaris) as others cannot grasp it, and even if it is comprehended, it cannot be assimilated or internalised.

The chapter ends with prostrations to the teacher conveying gratitude for the successful completion of the topic. The guru  is praised as one who helps the seeker cross the ocean of samsara by providing knowledge.  There are also salutations to Isvara who is free from all attributes (saguna nirguna svarupam) and is the efficient and material cause of the creation (abhinna upadana nimitta karanam).


Read Part 21 of the series...

Compiled by R. B. Athreya from the lectures of Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai.



Page last updated: 22-Aug-2014