On Sankara

shankaracharya_and_disciples_oq41By Swami Tripurari

The Brahma-sutras of Vyasa are the first attempt in human history to develop a systematic theology derived from revelation (Upanishads). This early Eastern effort was followed in the West in relation to the Bible, most notably in Catholic scholasticism. It is a pity that the West has not paid more attention to this earlier effort.

Here at Audarya we have been discussing Vyasa’s sutras of late, in an effort to substantiate Sri Caitanya’s scripturally backed (Garuda Purana) emphasis that the Srimad Bhagavatam is the natural commentary on the sutras. We have found no dearth of evidence in support of this conclusion.

As we discussed the tradition of commentary on the sutras that preceded Sri Caitanya’s emphasis of the Bhagavata, we reached the obvious conclusion that the most well known commentary, that of Sankara, does not constitute sastra-yukti, or reasoning that supports the position of revelation. Sankara is thus more philosopher than theologian.

While a philosopher is not bound to a particular tradition of religious thought or body of revelation, a theologian is. A theologian is no less competent to shed light on the nature of reality than is a philosopher; rather, he or she is as much or more a free thinker. While a philosopher attempts to make light out of darkness, a theologian studies the nature of light. Of course the philosopher is free to examine revelation, but the two, philosopher and theologian, are separated by the light of faith, which in Bhaktivinoda’s mind is synonymous with experience and is a product of a transrational exercise conducted in this or a previous life.

In Gaudiya Vedanta faith also means faith in revelation, or that perfect knowing requires a perfect method, and in essence that method amounts to folding one’s hands in prayer. Our intellect is not a perfect instrument, especially when it is wedded to the senseless demand of our senses to quench their unquenchable thirst. Equipped with faulty instruments, what are we left with to pursue perfect knowledge?

We have but our sincerity, our honesty, and honestly the universe is greater than ourselves. Exploiting the world for our small sense of human self in an effort to make the world fit within our mind will only artificially expand our sense of self and furthermore, blind us to the obvious. Exploitation causes the self to contract, and giving causes it to expand. This is the math. If you love someone they will tell you all of their secrets. In this context those secrets constitute revelation.

In what sense does Sankara not adhere to the tradition of revelation he identifies himself with? Sankara does claim to be a patron of revelation. Perhaps he is more of deviant theologian than a philosopher. At any rate, his idea that the form of Krishna is a limited expression of Brahman has no basis in revelation. Sri Caitanya characterizes Sankara’s imaginary commentary on Vyasa’s sutras thus: “Sankara more or less says that Vyasa was mistaken or crazy—vyasa-bhranta—therefore Sankara himself will give the proper understanding aside from what the sutras themselves say.” (Cc 1.7.121).

Sankara’s departure form sastra-yukti appears first in his highly interpretive explanation of sutra 1.1.17. This sutra appears in a section in which Brahman is described as having qualities. It begins with the statement anandamayo ’bhyasat, “Brahman is joyful.” (Vs. 1.1.12) Sutra 1.1.13 states that Brahman is not made of joy (a creation), but rather possessed of an abundance of joy. Evidence for this is offered in 1.1.14, which states that since Brahman is designated elsewhere as the cause of joy (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.7) he must be full of joy. Sutra 1.1.15 states that the scripture of joy (Taittiriya Upanisad) also celebrates Brahman as being joyful. Following this, in sutra in 1.1.16 that which is Brahman and joyful is distinguished from the individual soul. The Brahman who is joyful is also described in the scripture as being the creator. Thus it is Brahman who is described as joyful and not the individual soul, for only Brahman is described as possessing the ability to create the world. Sutra 1.1.17 then states that the individual soul and Brahman are declared to be different, bheda-vyapadesac ca. Even Sankara himself admits that sutras 1.1.16-17 concern the difference between Brahman and the individual soul. However, Sankara adds his own comment, declaring that the difference only exists on a lower level of reality (vyavaharic), whereas in ultimate reality (paramarthic) this illusion of difference ceases to exist. However, nowhere in Vedanta-sutra is there any reference to Sankara’s two levels of reality and thus two levels of Brahman—a provisional manifestation of the Absolute (Krishna/the avatara/isvara) and an ultimate reality (unmanifest, indeterminate Brahman).

Thus Sankara has attached his own doctrine to the sutras. In this doctrine he calls his provisional manifestation of Brahman “saguna Brahman,” Brahman with material adjuncts. The form of Krishna as saguna Brahman is thus considered a manifestation of Brahman constituted of the material quality of sattva that serves the purpose of helping individual souls realize the illusion of their individuality, at which time the form and person of the avatara is dispensed with as the enlightened realizes himself to be Brahman.

According to Sankara, those not qualified to meditate on Brahman should worship his idea of saguna Brahman to gradually qualify themselves for meditation on the formless Brahman. This is no doubt a creative philosophy, but nonetheless a huge departure from revelation.

Such a departure may not concern many today. However, those who are not bothered by it should be bothered by how it plays out into Sankara’s nonexistent world of our experience. Then again, perhaps we are at the liberty to pick and choose, but if we feel justified in doing so we would do ourselves a favor by writing all that we pick and choose down and then looking it over to see how comprehensive and coherent it is.

Sankara makes a fairly coherent argument. He was a good philosopher. However, he had a hard time wrapping his head around the all inclusive nature of Krishna’s form, as it is described in revelation. So too do many today. Thus the need for Gaudiya Vedanta.

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12 Responses to On Sankara

  1. Thank you for this great article, Maharaja. How can we lose faith in ourselves so that faith in something greater than ourselves can descend? What steps can we take on a daily basis so as to enter into the current of divine faith?

  2. Atma Prasad Krishna das

    Hare Krishna Maharaja,
    I am not sure if you will see this comment because it is so long after the article but anyways.

    This was a great article. As a practicing Gaudia Vaishnava who is working and attempting to preach to the Yoga community we need more nice summaries of deep scriptural explorations like this. I have found that an increasing number of yoga practitioners are claiming to be direct adherents to Sankara’s Advaita Vada. In my personal life I have not found the time to make the extensive study required to deeply connect with them and help them see the actual personal element of Vyasa’s conclusions. Is there any more articles or descriptions of this kind of study that you have published or recommend?

    Thank you for all your service to the Vaishnava community.

    Atma Prasada Krishna das
    Minneapolis, MN

  3. Since the Sutras concern the Upanishads, obviously the Upanishads are the perfect commentary on the Sutras.

    The Upanishads are replete with the two levels, the snake and rope for example, or the reflections of the sun. You don’t see the Sutras making mention of it because you don’t wish to see it. Cool. But go to the source, the Upanishads, and deny them not Sankara. That6 target is too easily shot down based on secterian bias. I look forward to your commentary on the Upanishads.

    • Anthony, welcome to the site.

      You present in interesting point in saying that the Upanishads are the perfect commentary on the Sutras, but it does not hold well. The sutras are called Vedanta sutra because they are the culmination / end (anta) of the Vedas (Upanishads). So it would not follow that an essential element of the Upanishads would be missing from the Sutras, nor does anyone that I know of claim the Upanisads to be a commentary on the Sutras.

      Gaudiya Vedanta following in the line of Caitanya Mahaprabhu posits that the Bhagavata Purana is the perfect commentary on Vedanta Sutra. This is more reasonable as it was written after the Sutras by Vyasa, the author of all the Vedas and the Sutras. The Bhagavat itself narrates Vyasa’s dissatisfaction with his literary contribution, even after the Sutras. To amend this Narada advised him to write the Bhagavat. Additionally, the Garuda Purana calls the Bhagavatam the perfect commentary on the Sutras (Artho yam brahma sutranam) and the culmination of the Vedas (vedartha). Nowhere in the Bhagavat do we find Sankara’s two levels supported.

      As far as the two levels being in the Upanishads themselves, those more learned than I can demonstrate that is not the case. There are modern scholars who concur that Sankara’s idea has no basis in the Vedas as well. You may be interested to know that Swami Tripurari has indeed authored an English translation and commentary of the Gopala-tapani Upanisad, much of which you can find here on the Harmonist in the classroom section. The whole book is available here: http://www.swami.org/store/gopala-tapani-upanisad.html?osCsid=03n85juquq9d1cf57bsivp5a70

  4. Srimad Bhagavata Sk.1 Ch.6 v.7 The whole world is without any freedom. It is like a puppet in the hands of the Lord.

    Similiar verses exist in the Gita.

    Your misunderstanding of Sankara is lamentable. As long as one is not in a state of realisation the world is an existing reality. The rope is a snake. Once one turns on the light the snake disappears and all that remains is the rope.

    “However, those who are not bothered by it should be bothered by how it plays out into Sankara’s nonexistent world of our experience.”

    Further which form of Krisna is the one? Four arms, two arms, viraj? Which one of the thousand plus that set up house with the women He brought to His city? Or was He all that together?

    How do you LIMIT His omnipotence? In what VESSEL do you trap Krishna the Lord of all, who breaks all bonds. Tie Him down please.

    • Anthony, it appears from your citation that you might have accepted the Bhagavata as the text from which to debate. This is encouraging! I hope to find time to reply to the best of my ability later this evening.

    • Your citation here is really not that clear, but I assume you are trying to say that the verse seems to indicate a lack of any free will and thus a oneness with God and an illusory nature of the world. Frankly, there are many better verses you could have cited in the Bhagavatam and the Gita, such as BG 13.14.

      I am not sure why you a feel the need to take such an aggressive tone. I think we could both be open to learning something from this conversation, even if we are not planning to adopt a new worldview. Regardless, the rest of your post does nothing to establish your original objective of showing that the Brahmasutras give credence to Sankara’s two levels of reality and Brahman.

      The analogies such as a rope and a snake and the sky reflected in a pot of water that are invoked by Sankaraites, in our view, undermine their own premise because they are not analagous to that which they seek to prove. We cannot mistake a rope for a snake unless we have some prior experience of snake, therefore if the world is an illusion, our experiences there must be present in soem form in the absolute reality. Other logical holes such as how a part the undivided, formless, quality-less, all-pervading Brahman comes under illusion are big hurdles for the Advaitin doctrine.

      Regarding limiting Krishna, that is a huge topic in itself, but Gaudiya Vedanta has a very extensive explanation of which form of Krishna represents the original Godhead. In brief, Gaudiyas reason that the two-armed Krishna of Vrindavan represents the primal godhead in part because of the variety of ways in which his devotees can interact with him there. He is god when he is “off-duty.” There he has no obligations, as one would suspect of the most-powerful being. Everything is for his pleasure. The intimacy in which on can relate to Krishna in Vrindavan surpasses all other forms of Vishnu and even Krishna after he has left Vrindavan. This Vrindavan is a manifestation of Krishna’s will, not any outside imposition upon God.

  5. I’ve thought of even a better one. Remember when Brahma wanted to test Krishna and took the cow and cowherds for a year? What did Krishna do?

    “Brahma made a mistake in trying to test Krishna’s power. Life went on like this for a year before Brahma returned. Brahma’s time passes much more quickly, so it seemed to him only a moment. However, when he returned he was shocked to see the boys and calves playing with Krishna, as though nothing had happened. Krishna knew Brahma was perplexed so He transformed all the boys and calves into four-armed Vishnu forms. Brahma heard music and saw many Brahmas, Shivas, demigods and jivas (souls) singing God’s names and dancing. Brahma’s mind opened at first to the vision, but then he became bewildered, so Krishna ended the dazzling scene.”

    All hail Govinda!

    • This does nothing to support your idea of nirguna Brahman being the topmost manifestation of divinity, but it does very strongly support our notion that Krishna in Vrindavan is the source of all other Gods, including Vishnu. Krishna is “para-brahman” (BG 10.11) and he is the source of all other incarnations (krsnas tu bhagavan svayam SB 1.3.28).

  6. I concur with Nitai’s statement that Upanishad’s are not the commentary on the Sutras. In fact, it is other way around.
    http://vimeo.com/6909369 http://vimeo.com/6910187
    You can see this videos from Patrick Olivelle that discusses the point of Upanishads supporting Advaita and he thinks it clearly does not.

    But I agree with you Anthony that Upanishads will not support Gaudiya Vaisnavism directly either. However, both oneness and difference are talked about in the Upanishads, so the theologies like Gaudiya, Ramanuja or Nimbaraka that recognize both features seem to be more in line with the Vedanta. However, the details of each theology need to be built by picking and selecting verses from the Vedic spectrum. What to do, that is how life is. 🙂

    One more excerpt from Dr Graham Schweig that may be helpful:

    “In BhP verse 8.7.31, the phrase nirasta-bhedam is used, meaning that there is no distinction that can be made between the various divinities and divine manifestations. And at one level that cannot; yet at another level a distinction can be made. In our western minds, we need the typical Kantian categories, which strictly compartmentalize. In the Indian system, although later Indian philosophers do establish metaphysical categories, in reality, the original texts such as the Bhagavata describe or express a kind of fluidity between beings and stages of being that is not always accounted for in later doctrinal traditions. It it never an absolute oneness, but never an absolute dualism either.”

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