A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

This page describes the philosophy of introduction of the theme: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the first part in the series called the “the philosophy of the yogavasishtha”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 1 - Introduction of the Yogavāsiṣṭha Theme

The philosophical elements in the various Purāṇas will be taken in a later volume. The Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-Rāmāyaṇa may be included among the purāṇas, but it is devoid of the general characteristics of the purāṇās and is throughout occupied with discussions of Vedāntic problems of a radically monistic type, resembling the Vedāntic doctrines as interpreted by Śaṅkara. This extensive philosophical poem, which contains twenty-three thousand seven hundred and thirty-four verses (ignoring possible differences in different manuscripts or editions) and is thus very much larger than the Śrīmad-bhagavad-gitā, is a unique work. The philosophical view with which it is concerned, and which it is never tired of reiterating, is so much like the view of Śaṅkara and of Vijñānavāda Buddhism, that its claim to treatment immediately after Śaṅkara seems to me to be particularly strong. Moreover, the various interpretations of the Vedānta-sūtra which will follow are so much opposed to Śaṅkara’s views as to make it hard to find a suitable place for a treatment like that of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha unless it is taken up immediately after the chapter dealing with Śaṅkara.

The work begins with a story. A certain Brahmin went to the hermitage of the sage Agastya and asked him whether knowledge or work was the direct cause of salvation (mokṣa-sādhana). Agastya replied that, as a bird flies with its two w'ings, so a man can attain the highest (paramaṃ padaṃ) only through knowledge and work. To illustrate this idea he narrates a story in which Kāruṇya, the son of Agniveśya, having returned from the teacher’s house after the completion of his studies, remained silent and did no work. When he was asked for the reason of this attitude of his, he said that he was perplexed over the question as to whether the action of a man in accordance with scriptural injunction was or was not more fitted for the attainment of his highest than following a course of self-abnegation and desirelessness (tyāga-mātra).

On hearing this question of Kāruṇya Agniveśya told him that he could answer his question only by narrating a story, after hearing which he might decide as he chose. A heavenly damsel (apsarāḥ), Suruci by name, sitting on one of the peaks of the Himālayas, once saw a messenger of Indra flying through the sky. She asked him where he was going. In reply he said that a certain king, Ariṣṭanemi by name, having given his kingdom to his son and having become free from all passions, was performing a course of asceticism (tapas), and that he had had to go to him on duty and was returning from him. The damsel wanted to know in detail what happened there between the messenger and the king.

The messenger replied that he was asked by Indra to take a well-decorated chariot and bring the king in it to heaven, but while doing so he was asked by the king to describe the advantages and defects of heaven, on hearing which he would make up his mind whether he would like to go there or not. In heaven, he was answered, people enjoyed superior, medium and inferior pleasures according as their merits were superior, medium or inferior: when they had exhausted their merits by enjoyment, they were reborn again on earth, and during their stay there they were subject to mutual jealousy on account of the inequality of their enjoyments. On hearing this the king had refused to go to heaven, and, when this was reported to Indra, he was very much surprised and he asked the messenger to carry the king to Vālmīki’s hermitage and make Vālmīki acquainted with the king’s refusal to enjoy the fruits of heaven and request him to give him proper instructions for the attainment of right knowledge, leading to emancipation {mokṣa). When this was done, the king asked Vālmīki how he might attain mokṣa , and Vālmīki in reply wished to narrate the dialogue of Vaśiṣṭha and Rāma (Vaśiṣṭha-rāma-saṃvāda) on the subject.

Vālmīki said that, when he had finished the story of Rāma— the work properly known as Rāmāyaṇa —and taught it to Bhara-dvāja, Bharadvāja recited it once to Brahmā (the god), and he, being pleased, wished to confer a boon on him. Bharadvāja in reply said that he would like to receive such instructions as would enable people to escape from sorrow. Brahmā told him to apply to Vālmīki and went himself to him (Vālmīki), accompanied by Bharadvāja, and asked him not to cease working until he finished describing the entire character of Rāma, by listening to which people will be saved from the dangers of the world. When Brahmā disappeared from the hermitage after giving this instruction, Bharadvāja also asked Vālmīki to describe how Rāma and his wife, brother and followers behaved in this sorrowful and dangerous world and lived in sorrowless tranquillity.

In answer to the above question Vālmīki replied that Rāma, after finishing his studies, went out on his travels to see the various places of pilgrimage and hermitages. On his return, however, he looked very sad every day and would not tell anyone the cause of his sorrow. King Daśaratha, Rāma’s father, became very much concerned about Rāma’s sadness and asked Vaśiṣṭha if he knew what might be the cause of it. At this time the sage Viśvāmitra also visited the city of Ayodhyā to invite Rāma to kill the demons. Rāma’s dejected mental state at this time created much anxiety, and Viśvāmitra asked him the cause of his dejection.

Rāma said in reply that a new enquiry had come into his mind and had made him averse from all enjoyments. There is no happiness in this world, people are born to die and they die to be born again. Everything is impermanent (asthira) in this world. All existent things are unconnected (bhāvāḥ...parasparam asaṅginaḥ). They are collected and associated together only by our mental imagination (manaḥ-kalpanaya). The world of enjoyment is created by the mind (manaḥ), and this mind itself appears to be nonexistent. Everything is like a mirage.

Vaśiṣṭha then explained the nature of the world-appearance, and it is this answer which forms the content of the book. When Vālmīki narrated this dialogue of Vaśiṣṭha and Rāma, king Ariṣ-tanemi found himself enlightened, and the damsel was also pleased and dismissed the heavenly messenger. Kāruṇya, on hearing all this from his father Agniveśya, felt as if he realized the ultimate truth and thought that, since he realized the philosophical truth, and since work and passivity mean the same, it was his clear duty to follow the customary duties of life. When Agastya finished narrating the story, the Brahmin Sutīkṣṇa felt himself enlightened.

There is at least one point which may be considered as a very clear indication of later date, much later than would be implied by the claim that the work was written by the author of the Rāmāyaṇa. It contains a śloka which may be noted as almost identical with a verse of Kālidāsa’s Kumāra-saṃbhava[1]. It may, in my opinion, be almost unhesitatingly assumed that the author borrowed it from Kālidāsa, and it is true, as is generally supposed, that Kālidāsa lived in the fifth century a.d. The author of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, whoever he may have been, flourished at least some time after Kālidāsa. It may also be assumed that the interval between Kālidāsa’s time and that of the author of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha had been long enough to establish Kālidāsa’s reputation as a poet. There is another fact which deserves consideration in this connection. In spite of the fact that the views of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha and Śaṅkara’s interpretation of Vedānta have important points of agreement neither of them refers to the other. Again, the views of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha so much resemble those of the idealistic school of Buddhists, that the whole work seems to be a Brahmanic modification of idealistic Buddhism. One other important instance can be given of such a tendency to assimilate Buddhistic idealism and modify it on Brahmanic lines, viz. the writings of Gaudapāda and Śaṅkara. I am therefore inclined to think that the author of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha was probably a contemporary of Gaudapāda or Śaṅkara, about a.d. 800 or a century anterior to them.

The work contains six books, or prakaraṇas, namely,

  1. Vairāgya
  2. Mumukṣu-vyavahāra,
  3. Utpatti,
  4. Sthiti,
  5. Upaśama
  6. and Nirvāṇa.

It is known also by the names of

  • Ārṣa-Rāmāyaṇa,
  • Jñāna-vāsiṣṭha,
  • Mahā-Rāmāyaṇa,
  • Vāsiṣṭha-Rāmāyaṇa
  • or Vāsiṣṭha.

Several commentaries have been written on it. Of these commentaries I am particularly indebted to the Tātparya-prakāśa of Anandabodhendra.

The Yoga-vāsiṣṭha is throughout a philosophical work, in the form of popular lectures, and the same idea is often repeated again and again in various kinds of expressions and poetical imagery. But the writer seems to have been endowed with extraordinary poetical gifts. Almost every verse is full of the finest poetical imagery; the choice of words is exceedingly pleasing to the ear, and they often produce the effect of interesting us more by their poetical value than by the extremely idealistic thought which they are intended to convey.

The Yoga-vāsiṣṭha had a number of commentaries, and it was also summarized in verse by some writers whose works also had commentaries written upon them. Thus Advayāraṇya, son of Narahari, wrote a commentary on it, called Vāsiṣṭha-Rāmāyaṇa-candrikā. Anandabodhendra Sarasvatī, pupil of Gaṅgādharendra Sarasvatī of the nineteenth century, wrote the Tātparya-prakāśa.

Gaṅgādharendra also is said to have written a commentary of the same name. Rāmadeva and Sadānanda also wrote two commentaries on the work, and in addition to these there is another commentary, called Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-tātparya-saṃgraha, and another commentary, the Pada-candrikā, was written by Mādhava Sarasvatī.

The names of some of its summaries are

  • Bṛhad-yoga-vāsiṣṭha,
  • Laghu-jñāna-vāsi-ṣṭha,
  • Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-ślokāḥ
  • and Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-saṃkṣepa
    by Gauda Abhinanda of the ninth century,
  • Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-sāra or Jñāna-sāra,
  • Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-sāra-saṃgraha
  • and Vāsiṣṭha-sāra or Vāsiṣṭha-sāra-gūḍhārthā
    by Ramānanda Tirthā, pupil of Advaitānanda.

The Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-saṃkṣepa of Gauda Abhinanda had a commentary by Ātmasukha, called Candrikā, and another called Saṃsāra-taraṇī, by Mummadideva. The Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-sāra also had two commentaries by Pūrṇānanda and Mahīdhara.

Mr Sivaprasad bhaṭṭacarya in an article on the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-Rāmāyaṇa in the Proceedings of the Madras Oriental Conference of 1924 says that the Mokṣopāya-sāra, which is another name for the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-sāra , was written by an Abhinanda who is not to be confused with Gauda Abhinanda. But he misses the fact that Gauda Abhinanda had also written another summary of it, called Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-saṃkṣepa. Incidentally this also refutes his view that the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha is to be placed between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. For, if a summary of it was written by Gauda Abhinanda of the ninth century, the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha must have been written at least in the eighth century. The date of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha may thus be regarded as being the seventh or the eighth century.

Footnotes and references:


Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, 111. 16. 50:

atha tām atimātra-vihvalāṃ
sakṛpākāśabhavā sarasvatī
śapharīṃ hrada-śoṣa-vihvalāṃ
pratḥamā vṛṣṭir ivānvakampata.

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