Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

upadesha sAhasrI part 21

Mahavakya Sravanam-Helps Gain Liberation


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Read Part 20 of the series...

Shankara validates his statement with unassailable logic.

  In the 18th  Chapter of Upadesa Sahasri (the longest, with 233 verses) Sankara establishes that Vedantic enquiry (Mahavakya Sravanam) generates Self-knowledge (Atma Jnanam), which liberates the seeker.   

In the process he refutes, through prolonged and incisive logic and reasoning, objections  by a certain school of philosophy.  However, the ideas are strewn back and forth in the verses without systematic development.  Some ideas  have been repeated.  It is, therefore, difficult to study this chapter on a verse-by-verse basis or group the verses under a distinct head.  A summary of the chapter is presented below, culling out the essential content under different topics

An End by Itself

Sankaracharya declares that a consistent and systematic study of mahavakyams, such as tat tvam asi, under the guidance of a competent acharya will give direct and immediate Self-knowledge  (Atma aparoksha jnanam) which is capable of giving liberation (mahavakya sravanat mukti hetu atma aparoksha jnana prapti).  Once this knowledge is gained, nothing else needs to be done to  attain liberation.  Atma Jnanam is sufficient to ensure liberation. In short, Self- knowledge is an end by itself.

Sankaracharya then answers objections  to his statement and establishes its validity by reasoning and cogent logic.  This style of making a statement and supporting it logically is adopted by authors of scriptural texts.  Such statements are traditionally known as pratijna vakyams, which are initially enunciated and subsequently defended and re-asserted in the end  by what are called nigamana vakyams. 

Enunciation by the author of pratijna vakyam is followed by objections from a school of thought called prasankyana vadi.  They claim  that mere mahavakya sravanam and the knowledge gained thereby will not give liberation, but one has to take to prolonged repetition of the content of the knowledge, known as avritti  or prasankyanam, as a result of which a new knowledge is gained. That alone gives liberation.  In support of this contention, the prasankyana vadi gives the following arguments.

(i) The mahavakya revelation that Jivatma is eternal and is none other than the infinite Brahman of the nature of ananda is contradicted by one’s own life experiences.  It is common knowledge that one feels limited, located, mortal, constantly exposed to pleasure or pain and subject to old age and sickness (pratyaksha virodham)

(ii) Even those who have taken to scriptural study and done mahavakya sravanam and claim to have understood the import continue to be affected by samsara and are subject to grief and sorrow and a feeling of limitation as before (sruta brahmani yatha purvam samsara darsanat or jnana anantaram api dukha anubhava darsanat).

(iii) The scriptures prescribe sannyasa asrama as part of the spiritual journey which, according to the prasankyana vadi, implies the need for doing avritti or prasankyanam to generate new knowledge to make the mahavakya sravana-born understanding effective enough to ensure liberation.

The rest of the chapter examines and refutes these objections and establishes the pratijna vakyam.  To the first objection (pratyaksha virodha) Sankaracharya provides a general answer that experience (anubhava) cannot contradict knowledge arising from a valid means (pramanam), as can be seen from the perception of sun rise/sun set and dream events, which are negated by knowledge and waking up respectively. 

Therefore, samsara anubhava in the world of our experience cannot contradict the validity of the mahavakya-born knowledge (being pramana janya jnanam).  Therefore, samsara anubhava has to be only mithya or adhyasa.

Samsara Is Mithya

To establish that samsara is mithya, Sankaracharya uses two methods.

(i) Bondage (samsara) is only in the realm of pratyaksha or lowkika pramanam, whereas Atma is sarva pramana agocharam (beyond all our sensory perception) and can be revealed only by sruti pramanam.  It is, therefore, not possible to establish samsara or bandha in Atma.  Accordingly, bandha or samsara will not be available for any pramanam (apramanikam) and if it is not pramana siddha (established by pramana) it can only be considered a misconception (bhranti).

(ii) Abhasa vada prakriya (instrument of abhasa vada) is another method employed by the author.  He raises three questions. (a) Does bandha belong to Atma (original consciousness or chit)  (b) Does bandha belong to anatma (jada) or (c) Does bandha belong to reflected consciousness (chidabhasa)?.  He concludes that bandha does not belong to any of the three and, therefore, it has to be mithya. 

Sankaracharya then proceeds to establish abhasa (reflection) by giving three arguments.

(i) Sastriya bandha moksha sidhyartham (to validate the need for revelation by scriptures of concepts, such as  bondage and liberation).  Obviously, the scriptural teaching is intended for a baddha purusha (an individual who is bound). Who can be such a person--Atma, or anatma?  Not Atma, as it is ever free by definition (Atma nitya muktatvat).  Teaching is obviously not intended for anatma as it is inert (jada).  Therefore, we have to accept the chidabhasa (reflected consciousness) to make the scriptural revelation or teaching purposeful and relevant. 

(ii) Sastra pramanika sidhyartham (to establish the validity of the scriptures).  The scriptures proclaim, “You are Brahman.” Is this proclamation intended for Atma?  It cannot be, as Atma is never a srota/pramata (listener/knower).  It cannot, of course, be addressed to anatma, which is jada and ever bound and, therefore, will render the scriptures invalid.  Therefore, to ensure relevance of sastra pramanam we have to consider a third entity in the form of chidabhasa.

(iii) Jnana pada sidhyartham (to justify the verb “to know”).  The verb “to know” or “know” (janami) has to be in relation to “I,” the subject.  Knowing involves modification and the knower has to be sentient (chetana tatvam).  We, therefore, need a subject, ’I’ which is both savikara (subject to modification) and chetana (sentient).  Quite clearly this ’I’ cannot be either Atma (which is nirvikara or free from modification) or anatma which is achetanam (inert).  Thus, the verb, janami, needs an intermediary in the form of abhasa.

How It Solves Problems

Having established abhasa, Sankara shows how its  introduction will solve all problems.  If abhasa is accepted, anatma or ahankara will immediately lend itself to be described as baddha, samsari, pramata.   Whatever happens in the samsara avastha is  superimposition on Atma, because of which Atma is seen as baddha, mukta, pramata, srota, etc.  By accepting abhasa every other thing is achieved (such as  sravanam, jnanam, moksha and sastra pramanams related thereto).

Then Sankara demonstrates how abhasa is mithya (abhasa mithyatvam) by using the example of a reflected face in a mirror (mukha pratibimba drishtanta).  Does the reflected face belong to the mirror or the original face?  It obviously does not belong to either as, if it belongs to the mirror it will always be seen even in the absence of the original face and if it belongs to the original face, the mirror will be rendered unnecessary.  It also cannot exist independently of either.  Thus, reflection can only be mithya (experientially available but really non-existent).

Satya or Mithya?

The next issue is whether samsara is satyam or mithya--whether samsara belongs to Atma, anatma or abhasa.  It cannot belong to Atma as Atma is satyam.  It cannot belong to anatma as the latter is jadam.  As far as abhasa is concerned, there are two views. 

Sri Vidyaranya in Panchadasi has taken the position that samsara belongs to abhasa and, as abhasa is mithya, samsara has also to be mithya.  Sankaracharya takes the view that as abhasa is itself mithya, one cannot talk of any association of samsara with abhasa.

Based on this analysis, Sankara refutes all the three objections of the prasankyana vadi as follows:

(i) As samsara in the form of all problems of limitation, location, mortality, old age, sickness, grief and sorrow is mithya, these perceived experiences (pratyaksha anubhava) cannot obstruct knowledge born of mahavakya vichara (sravana janya jnanam).  Therefore, the conclusion that knowledge is gained by mahavakya sravanam is established (sravanat jnana siddhihi angikarya-meva).  Thus,  the pratijna vakyam is not pratyaksha virodha.

(ii) As for the argument that even those exposed to Mahavakya teachingare seen to be subject to samsara problems, Sankaracharya says  that so long as the seeker listens to the Vedantic teaching (mahavakya sravanam)  in the manner it should be done, the mahavakya-born knowledge is certainly capable of giving liberation by itself.

As a direct retort, Sankaracharya asserts that there are several examples of seekers who have gained liberation as a result of Vedanta sravanam.  He  highlights that for the mahavakya sravanam to be effective and purposeful, the seeker must clearly understand and absorb the real and scripturally intended purport and meaning of both the tvam pada (you) and the tat pada (that) forming part of the mahvakya.

While doing sravanam, the student must take the tvam pada to mean only Atma unmixed with ahankara in order that the mahavakya vichara will produce the promised results (yushmad asmat vibhagajnya syat arthavat idam vacha – Verse 90).

The author reveals that Atma is of the nature of Pure Consciousness (suddha chaitanyam) by using several logical means, particularly the anvaya vyatireka law.  As mahavakya gives the knowledge and is not contradicted by any of our sensory experiences, it has to be factual knowledge.  Vedanta does not promise any solution to  physical, emotional and intellectual problems at the relative level.  If one feels he is subject to sorrow he is not supposed to question the scriptures, but question his emotion.

Better Process

Sankaracharya, while discussing the relative efficacy of scriptural statements revealing Atma, makes the point that those which positively reveal Atma like the mahavakyam are more important than those which reveal Atma by negation like “neti neti.”  (Vidhimukha vakyams  are preferred to nishedha mukha vakyams). 

(iii)  Sankaracharya rejects the third argument related to the relevance of sannyasa vidhi by pointing out that the provision for this lifestyle is to enable committed pursuit of jnana yoga comprising sravana, manana and nididhyasana and not for prasankyana (avritti).  It is also to be noted that sannyasa asrama is more conducive and better suited to focus on the correct interpretation of tvam pada (Atma clearly separated from ahankara) being relatively free from vyavahara than the householder who has to invoke ahankara very often. 

Incidentally, the point is also made that there is no question of a sannyasi, in the absence of normal disciplines enjoined on a householder, taking to a licentious lifestyle (yatheshtacharam).  This is because the sannyasi seeker has already given up all attachments (raga) which is the main cause for violation of dharma. 

Further, he will be deeply involved in sravana manana nididhyasana, leaving little time for any vyavahara, not to speak of prohibited or undesirable activity.  In the case of a sannyasi jnani  (this is true of all jnanis as well) his strong sattvik vasanas developed deliberately during years of spiritual sadhana in the past will ensure that he will not violate dharma particularly when he is richly endowed with vairagya. 

After such a categorical rejection of all the arguments put forth by the  prasankyana vadi, Sankaracharya goes on the offensive and shows how acceptance of this vada will involve logical contradictions.   Avritti or prasankyana, being a karma invoking kartrutvam, is directly opposed to sravana janya atma jnanam, which is rooted in akartrutvam.  Also, Atma jnanam reveals moksha as a siddha vastu (attained goal) while prasankyana implies moksha is a sadhyam (goal to be attained).
Thus, a study of the 18th chapter clearly establishes the pratijna vakya and rejects prasankyana vada.  The chapter is accordingly titled Tatvamasi prakaranam, as mahavakya is the subject matter.  The chapter ends  with salutations to the guru, who is glorified as a knower of Brahman and is compared to a honey bee (which collects the best honey from flowers) for extracting knowledge from the Vedantic scriptures.


Read Part 22 of the series...

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



Page last updated: 06-Oct-2014