A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of vacaspati mishra (a.d. 840): a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the twelfth part in the series called the “the shankara school of vedanta (continued)”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 12 - Vācaspati Miśra (a.d. 840)

Vācaspati Miśra, the celebrated author of a commentary called Bhāmatī on Śaṅkara’s commentary, is the author of a Tattva-samīkṣā, a commentary on Maṇḍana’s Brahma-siddhi ; he also commented on the Sāṃkhya-kārikā, Vidhi-viveka , Nyāya-vārttika, and he was the author of a number of other works. In his Nyāya-sūcīni-bandhahe gives his date as 8g8(vasv-añka-vasu-vatsare) , which in all probability has to be understood as of the Vikrama-samvat, and consequently he can safely be placed in A.D. 842. In his commentary called Bhāmatī he offers salutation to Mārtaṇḍa-tilaka-svāmin, which has been understood to refer to his teacher.

But Amalānanda in commenting thereon rightly points out that this word is a compound of the two names Mārtaṇḍa and Tilakasvāmin, belonging to gods adored with a view to the fruition of one’s actions. Tilakasvāmin is referred to in Yājñavalkya, I.294 as a god, and the Mitākṣarā explains it as being the name of the god Kārttikeya or Skanda. Udayana, however, in his Nyāya-vārttika-tātparya-pari-śuddhi (p. 9), a commentary on Vācaspati’s Tātparya-ṭīkā , refers to one Trilocana as being the teacher of Vācaspati, and Vardhamāna in his commentary on it, called Nyāya-nibandha-prakāśa , confirms this: Vācaspati himself also refers to Trilocanaguru, whom he followed in interpreting the word vyavasāya (Nyāya-sūtra, 1. i. 4) as determinate knowledge (savikalpa)[1].

It is however interesting to note that in the Nyāya-kaṇikā (verse 3) he refers to the author of the Nyāya-mañjarī (in all probability Jayanta) as his teacher (vidyā-tani)[2]. Vācaspati says at the end of his Bhāmatī commentary that he wrote that work when the great king Nrga was reigning. This king, so far as the present writer is aware, has not yet been historically traced. Bhāmatī was Vācaspati’s last great work; for in the colophon at the end of the Bhāmatī he says that he had already written his Nyāya-kaṇikā , Tattva-samīkṣā, Tottva-bindu and other works on Nyāya, Sāṃkhya and Yoga.

Vācaspati’s Vedāntic works are Bhāmatī and Tattva-samīkṣā (on Brahma-siddhi). The last work has not yet been published. Aufrecht, referring to his work, Tattva-bindu, says that it is a Vedānta work. This is however a mistake, as the work deals with the sphota doctrines of sound, and has nothing to do with Vedānta. In the absence of Vācaspati’s Tattva-samīkṣā , which has not been published, and manuscripts of which have become extremely scarce, it is difficult to give an entirely satisfactory account of the special features of Vācaspati’s view of Vedānta. But his Bhāmatī commentary is a great work, and it is possible to collect from it some of the main features of his views.

As to the method of Vācaspati’s commentary, he always tries to explain the text as faithfully as he can, keeping himself in the background and directing his great knowledge of the subject to the elucidation of the problems which directly arise from the texts and to explaining the allusions and contexts of thoughts, objections and ideas of other schools of thought referred to in the text. The Bhāmatī commentary on Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya is a very important one, and it had a number of important sub-commentaries. The most important and earliest of these is the Vedānta-kalpa-taru of Amalānanda (a.d. 1247-1260), on which Appaya Dīkṣita (about A.D. 1600) wrote another commentary called Vedānta-kalpa taru-parimala[3].

The Vedānta-kalpa-taru was also commented on by LakṣmīNṛsiṃha, author of the Tarka-dīpikā , son of Koṇḍa-bhaṭṭa and grandson of Raṅgojī bhaṭṭa, towards the end of the seventeenth century, and this commentary is called Ābhoga. The Ābhoga commentary is largely inspired by the Vedānta-kalpa-taru-parimala, though in many cases it differs from and criticizes it. In addition to these there are also other commentaries on the Bhāmatī , such as the Bhāmatī-tilaka, the Bhāmati-vilāsa, the Bhāmatī-vyākhyā by Śrīraṅganātha and another commentary on the Vedānta-kalpa-taru, by Vaidyanātha Payaguṇḍa, called the Vedānta-kalpa- taru-mañjarī.

Vācaspati defines truth and reality as immediate self-revelation (sva-prakāśatā) which is never contradicted (abādhita). Only the pure self can be said to be in this sense ultimately real. He thus definitely rejects the definition of reality as the participation of the class-concept of being, as the Naiyāyikas hold, or capacity of doing work (artha-kriyā-kāritva), as the Buddhists hold. He admits two kinds of ajñāna , as psychological and as forming the material cause of the mind and the inner psychical nature of man or as the material world outside. Thus he says in his commentary on the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya, I. iii. 30, that at the time of the great dissolution (mahā-pralaya) all products of avidyā , such as the psychical frame (antaḥkaraṇa), cease to have any functions of their own, but are not on account of that destroyed; they are at that time merged in the indescribable avidyā , their root cause, and abide there as potential capacities (sūkṣmeṇa śakti-rūpeṇa) together with the wrong impressions and psychological tendencies of illusion.

When the state of mahā-pralaya is at an end, moved by the will of God, they come out like the limbs of a tortoise or like the rejuvenation during rains of the bodies of frogs which have remained inert and lifeless all the year round, and then, being associated with their proper tendencies and impressions, they assume their particular names and forms as of old before the mahā-pralaya.

Though all creation takes place through God’s will, yet God’s will is also determined by the conditions of karma and the impressions produced by it. This statement proves that he believed in avidyā as an objective entity of an indescribable nature (anirvācyā avidyā), into which all world-products disappear during the mahā-pralaya and out of which they reappear in the end and become associated with psychological ignorance and wrong impressions which had also disappeared into it at the time of the mahā-pralaya. Avidyā thus described resembles very much the prakṛti of Yoga, into which all the world-products disappear during a mahā-pralaya together with the fivefold avidyā and their impressions, which at the time of creation become associated with their own proper buddhis.

In the very adoration hymn of the Bhāmatī Vācaspati speaks of avidyā being twofold (avidyā-dvitaya), and says that all appearances originate from Brahman in association with or with the accessory cause (sahakāri-kāraṇa) of the two avidyās (avidyā-dvitaya-sacivasya). In explaining this passage Amalānanda points out that this refers to two avidyās , one as a beginningless positive entity and the other as the preceding series of beginningless false impressions (anyā pūrvāpūrva-bhrama-saṃskāraḥ). There is thus one aspect of avidyā which forms the material stuff of the appearances; but the appearances could not have been appearances if they were not illusorily identified with the immediate and pure self-revelation (sva-prakāśā cit).

Each individual person (jīva) confuses and misapprehends his psychical frame and mental experiences as intelligent in themselves, and it is by such an illusory confusion that these psychical states attain any meaning as appearances; for otherwise these appearances could not have been expressed at all. But how does the person come in, since the concept of a person itself presupposes the very confusion which it is supposed to make? To this Vācaspati’s reply is that the appearance of the personality is due to a previous false confusion, and that to another previous false confusion (cf. Maṇḍana). So each false confusion has for its cause a previous false confusion, and that another false confusion and so on in a beginningless series. It is only through such a beginningless series of confusions that all the later states of confusion are to be explained.

Thus on the one hand the avidyā operates in the individual person, the jīva, as its locus or support (āśraya), and on the other hand it has the Brahman or pure self-revealing intelligence as its object (viṣaya), which it obscures and through which it makes its false appearances to be expressed, thereby giving them a false semblance of reality, whereby all the world-appearances seem to be manifestations of reality[4]. It is easy to see how this view differs from the view of the Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka of Sarvajñātma Muni; for in the opinion of the latter, the Brahman is both the support (āśraya) and the object (viṣaya) of ajñāna, which means that the illusion does not belong to the individual person, but is of a transcendental character. It is not the individual person as such (jīva), but the pure intelligence that shines through each individual person (pratyak-cit), that is both obscured and diversified into a manifold of appearances in a transcendental manner.

In Vācaspati’s view, however, the illusion is a psychological one for which the individual person is responsible, and it is caused through a beginningless chain of illusions or confusions, where each succeeding illusory experience is explained by a previous illusory mode of experience, and that by another and so on. The content of the illusory experiences is also derived from the indescribable avidyā, which is made to appear as real by their association with Brahman, the ultimately real and self-revealing Being. The illusory appearances, as they are, cannot be described as being existent or non-existent; for, though they seem to have their individual existences, they are always negated by other existences, and none of them have that kind of reality which can be said to defy all negation and contradiction; and it is only such uncontradicted self-revelation that can be said to be ultimately real.

The unreality of world-appearances consists in the fact that they are negated and contradicted; and yet they are not absolutely non-existent like a hare’s horn, since, had they been so, they could not have been experienced at all. So in spite of the fact that the appearances are made out of avidyā , they have so far as any modified existence can be ascribed to them, the Brahman as their underlying ground, and it is for this reason that Brahman is to be regarded as the ultimate cause of the world.

As soon as this Brahman is realized, the appearances vanish; for the root of all appearances is their illusory confusion with reality, the Brahman. In the Bhāmatī commentary on Śaṅkara’s commentary, 11. ii. 28, Vācaspati points out that according to the Śaṅkara Vedānta the objects of knowledge are themselves indescribable in their nature (anirvacanlyaṃ nīlādi) and not mere mental ideas (na hi brahma-vādino nīlādy-ākārāṃ vittim abhyupagacchanti kintu anirvacanīyaṃ nllādi). The external objects therefore are already existent outside of the perceiver, only their nature and stuff are indescribable and irrational (anirvācya). Our perceptions therefore refer always to such objects as their excitants or producers, and they are not of the nature of pure sensations or ideas generated from within, without the aid of such external objects.

Footnotes and references:


yatḥāmānaṃ yathā-vastu vyākḥyātam idam īdṛiam.
p. 87. Benares, 1898.


ajñāna-timira-śamanīṃ nyāya-mañjarīṃ rucirām
prasavitre prabhavitre vidyā-tarave namo gurave.
introductory verse.


Amalānanda also wrote another work, called Śāstra-darpaṇa, in which, taking the different topics (adhikaraṇas) of the Brahma-sūtras, he tried to give a plain and simple general explanation of the whole topic without entering into much discussion on the interpretations of the different sūtras on the topic. These general lectures on the adhikaraṇas of the Brahma-sūtras did not, however, reveal any originality of views on the part of Amalānanda, but were based on Vācaspati’s interpretation, and were but reflections of his views, as Amalānanda himself admits in the second verse of the Śāstra-darpaṇa

(Vācaspati-mati-vimbitam ādarśam prārabhe vimalam)
—Śri Vāni Vilāsa Press, igi3, Srirangam, Madras.


It is in the latter view that Vācaspati differs from Maṇḍana, on whose Braḥma-sidḍḥi he wrote his Tattva-samīkṣā.

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