Brahma Sutras (Shankaracharya)

by George Thibaut | 1890 | 203,611 words

English translation of the Brahma sutras (aka. Vedanta Sutras) with commentary by Shankaracharya (Shankara Bhashya): One of the three canonical texts of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. The Brahma sutra is the exposition of the philosophy of the Upanishads. It is an attempt to systematise the various strands of the Upanishads which form the ...


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To the sacred literature of the Brahmans, in the strict sense of the term, i.e. to the Veda, there belongs a certain number of complementary works without whose assistance the student is, according to Hindu notions, unable to do more than commit the sacred texts to memory. In the first place all Vedic texts must, in order to be understood, be read together with running commentaries such as Sāyaṇa's commentaries on the Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas, and the Bhāṣyas ascribed to Śaṅkara on the chief Upaniṣads. But these commentaries do not by themselves conduce to a full comprehension of the contents of the sacred texts, since they confine themselves to explaining the meaning of each detached passage without investigating its relation to other passages, and the whole of which they form part; considerations of the latter kind are at any rate introduced occasionally only. The task of taking a comprehensive view of the contents of the Vedic writings as a whole, of systematising what they present in an unsystematical form, of showing the mutual co-ordination or subordination of single passages and sections, and of reconciling contradictions--which, according to the view of the orthodox commentators, can be apparent only--is allotted to a separate śāstra or body of doctrine which is termed Mīmāṃsā, i.e. the investigation or enquiry κατ᾽ ἐζοχήν, viz. the enquiry into the connected meaning of the sacred texts.

Of this Mīmāṃsā two branches have to be distinguished, the so-called earlier (pūrva) Mīmāṃsā, and the later (uttara) Mīmāṃsā. The former undertakes to systematise the karmakāṇḍa, i.e. that entire portion of the Veda which is concerned with action, pre-eminently sacrificial action, and which comprises the Saṃhitās and the Brāhmaṇas exclusive of the Āraṇyaka portions; the latter performs the same service with regard to the so-called jñānakāṇḍa, i.e. that part of the Vedic writings which includes the Āraṇyaka portions of the Brāhmaṇas, and a number of detached treatises called Upaniṣads. Its subject is not action but knowledge, viz. the knowledge of Brahman.

At what period these two śāstras first assumed a definite form, we are unable to ascertain. Discussions of the nature of those which constitute the subject-matter of the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā must have arisen at a very early period, and the word Mīmāṃsā itself together with its derivatives is already employed in the Brāhmaṇas to denote the doubts and discussions connected with certain contested points of ritual. The want of a body of definite rules prescribing how to act, i.e. how to perform the various sacrifices in full accordance with the teaching of the Veda, was indeed an urgent one, because it was an altogether practical want, continually pressing itself on the adhvaryus engaged in ritualistic duties. And the task of establishing such rules was moreover a comparatively limited and feasible one; for the members of a certain Vedic śākhā or school had to do no more than to digest thoroughly their own brāhmaṇa and saṃhitā, without being under any obligation of reconciling with the teaching of their own books the occasionally conflicting rules implied in the texts of other śākhās. It was assumed that action, as being something which depends on the will and choice of man, admits of alternatives, so that a certain sacrifice may be performed in different ways by members of different Vedic schools, or even by the followers of one and the same śākhā.

The Uttara Mīmāṃsā-śāstra may be supposed to have originated considerably later than the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā. In the first place, the texts with which it is concerned doubtless constitute the latest branch of Vedic literature. And in the second place, the subject-matter of those texts did not call for a systematical treatment with equal urgency, as it was in no way connected with practice; the mental attitude of the authors of the Upaniṣads, who in their lucubrations on Brahman and the soul aim at nothing less than at definiteness and coherence, may have perpetuated itself through many generations without any great inconvenience resulting therefrom.

But in the long run two causes must have acted with ever-increasing force, to give an impulse to the systematic working up of the teaching of the Upaniṣads also. The followers of the different Vedic sākhās no doubt recognised already at an early period the truth that, while conflicting statements regarding the details of a sacrifice can be got over by the assumption of a vikalpa, i.e. an optional proceeding, it is not so with regard to such topics as the nature of Brahman, the relation to it of the human soul, the origin of the physical universe, and the like. Concerning them, one opinion only can be the true one, and it therefore becomes absolutely incumbent on those, who look on the whole body of the Upaniṣads as revealed truth, to demonstrate that their teaching forms a consistent whole free from all contradictions. In addition there supervened the external motive that, while the karma-kāṇḍa of the Veda concerned only the higher castes of brahmanically constituted society, on which it enjoins certain sacrificial performances connected with certain rewards, the jñānakāṇḍa, as propounding a certain theory of the world, towards which any reflecting person inside or outside the pale of the orthodox community could not but take up a definite position, must soon have become the object of criticism on the part of those who held different views on religious and philosophic things, and hence stood in need of systematic defence.

At present there exists a vast literature connected with the two branches of the Mīmāṃsā. We have, on the one hand, all those works which constitute the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā-śāstra--or as it is often, shortly but not accurately, termed, the Mīmāṃsā-sāstra--and, on the other hand, all those works which are commonly comprised under the name Vedānta-śāstra. At the head of this extensive literature there stand two collections of Sūtras (i. e. short aphorisms constituting in their totality a complete body of doctrine upon some subject), whose reputed authors are Jaimini and Bādarāyaṇa. There can, however, be no doubt that the composition of those two collections of Sūtras was preceded by a long series of preparatory literary efforts of which they merely represent the highly condensed outcome. This is rendered probable by the analogy of other śāstras, as well as by the exhaustive thoroughness with which the Sūtras perform their task of systematizing the teaching of the Veda, and is further proved by the frequent references which the Sūtras make to the views of earlier teachers. If we consider merely the preserved monuments of Indian literature, the Sūtras (of the two Mīmāṃsās as well as of other śāstras) mark the beginning; if we, however, take into account what once existed, although it is at present irretrievably lost, we observe that they occupy a strictly central position, summarising, on the one hand, a series of early literary essays extending over many generations, and forming, on the other hand, the head spring of an ever broadening activity of commentators as well as virtually independent writers, which reaches down to our days, and may yet have some future before itself.

The general scope of the two Mīmāṃsa-sūtras and their relation to the Veda have been indicated in what precedes. A difference of some importance between the two has, however, to be noted in this connexion. The systematisation of the karmakāṇḍa of the Veda led to the elaboration of two classes of works, viz. the Kalpa-sūtras on the one hand, and the Pūrva Mīmāṃsa-sūtras on the other hand. The former give nothing but a description as concise as possible of the sacrifices enjoined in the Brāhmaṇas; while the latter discuss and establish the general principles which the author of a Kalpa-sūtra has to follow, if he wishes to render his rules strictly conformable to the teaching of the Veda. The jñānakāṇḍa of the Veda, on the other hand, is systematised in a single work, viz. the Uttara Mīmāṃsā or Vedanta-sūtras, which combine the two tasks of concisely stating the teaching of the Veda, and of argumentatively establishing the special interpretation of the Veda adopted in the Sūtras. This difference may be accounted for by two reasons. In the first place, the contents of the karmakāṇḍa, as being of an entirely practical nature, called for summaries such as the Kalpa-sūtras, from which all burdensome discussions of method are excluded; while there was no similar reason for the separation of the two topics in the case of the purely theoretical science of Brahman. And, in the second place, the Vedānta-sūtras throughout presuppose the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā-sūtras, and may therefore dispense with the discussion of general principles and methods already established in the latter.

The time at which the two Mīmāṃsā-sūtras were composed we are at present unable to fix with any certainty; a few remarks on the subject will, however, be made later on. Their outward form is that common to all the so-called Sūtras which aims at condensing a given body of doctrine in a number of concise aphoristic sentences, and often even mere detached words in lieu of sentences. Besides the Mīmāṃsā-sūtras this literary form is common to the fundamental works on the other philosophic systems, on the Vedic sacrifices, on domestic ceremonies, on sacred law, on grammar, and on metres. The two Mīmāṃsā-sūtras occupy, however, an altogether exceptional position in point of style. All Sūtras aim at conciseness; that is clearly the reason to which this whole species of literary composition owes its existence. This their aim they reach by the rigid exclusion of all words which can possibly be spared, by the careful avoidance of all unnecessary repetitions, and, as in the case of the grammatical Sūtras, by the employment of an arbitrarily coined terminology which substitutes single syllables for entire words or combination of words. At the same time the manifest intention of the Sūtra writers is to express themselves with as much clearness as the conciseness affected by them admits of. The aphorisms are indeed often concise to excess, but not otherwise intrinsically obscure, the manifest care of the writers being to retain what is essential in a given phrase, and to sacrifice only what can be supplied, although perhaps not without difficulty, and an irksome strain of memory and reflection. Hence the possibility of understanding without a commentary a very considerable portion at any rate of the ordinary Sūtras. Altogether different is the case of the two Mīmāṃsā-sūtras. There scarcely one single Sūtra is intelligible without a commentary. The most essential words are habitually dispensed with; nothing is, for instance, more common than the simple omission of the subject or predicate of a sentence. And when here and there a Sūtra occurs whose words construe without anything having to be supplied, the phraseology is so eminently vague and obscure that without the help derived from a commentary we should be unable to make out to what subject the Sūtra refers. When undertaking to translate either of the Mīmāṃsā-sutras we therefore depend altogether on commentaries; and hence the question arises which of the numerous commentaries extant is to be accepted as a guide to their right understanding.

The commentary here selected for translation, together with Bādarāyaṇa's Sūtras[1] (to which we shall henceforth confine our attention to the exclusion of Jaimini's Pūrva Mīmāṃsā-sutras), is the one composed by the celebrated theologian Śaṅkara or, as he is commonly called, Śaṅkarācārya. There are obvious reasons for this selection. In the first place, the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya represents the so-called orthodox side of Brahmanical theology which strictly upholds the Brahman or highest Self of the Upaniṣads as something different from, and in fact immensely superior to, the divine beings such as Viṣṇu or Siva, which, for many centuries, have been the chief objects of popular worship in India. In the second place, the doctrine advocated by Śaṅkara is, from a purely philosophical point of view and apart from all theological considerations, the most important and interesting one which has arisen on Indian soil; neither those forms of the Vedānta which diverge from the view represented by Śaṅkara nor any of the non-Vedāntic systems can be compared with the so-called orthodox Vedānta in boldness, depth, and subtlety of speculation. In the third place, Śaṅkara's bhāṣya is, as far as we know, the oldest of the extant commentaries, and relative antiquity is at any rate one of the circumstances which have to be taken into account, although, it must be admitted, too much weight may easily be attached to it. The Śaṅkara-bhāṣya further is the authority most generally deferred to in India as to the right understanding of the Vedānta-sūtras, and ever since Śaṅkara's time the majority of the best thinkers of India have been men belonging to his school. If in addition to all this we take into consideration the intrinsic merits of Śaṅkara's work which, as a piece of philosophical argumentation and theological apologetics, undoubtedly occupies a high rank, the preference here given to it will be easily understood.

But to the European--or, generally, modern--translator of the Vedānta-sūtras with Śaṅkara's commentary another question will of course suggest itself at once, viz. whether or not Śaṅkara's explanations faithfully render the intended meaning of the author of the Sūtras. To the Indian Pandit of Śaṅkara's school this question has become an indifferent one, or, to state the case more accurately, he objects to its being raised, as he looks on Śaṅkara's authority as standing above doubt and dispute. When pressed to make good his position he will, moreover, most probably not enter into any detailed comparison of Śaṅkara's comments with the text of Bādarāyaṇa's Sūtras, but will rather endeavour to show on speculative grounds that Śaṅkara's philosophical view is the only true one, whence it of course follows that it accurately represents the meaning of Bādarāyaṇa, who himself must necessarily be assured to have taught the true doctrine. But on the modern investigator, who neither can consider himself bound by the authority of a name however great, nor is likely to look to any Indian system of thought for the satisfaction of his speculative wants, it is clearly incumbent not to acquiesce from the out set in the interpretations given of the Vedānta-sūtras--and the Upaniṣads--by Śaṅkara and his school, but to submit them, as far as that can be done, to a critical investigation.

This is a task which would have to be undertaken even if Śaṅkara's views as to the true meaning of the Sūtras and Upaniṣads had never been called into doubt on Indian soil, although in that case it could perhaps hardly be entered upon with much hope of success; but it becomes much more urgent, and at the same time more feasible, when we meet in India itself with systems claiming to be Vedāntic and based on interpretations of the Sūtras and Upaniṣads more or less differing from those of Śaṅkara. The claims of those systems to be in the possession of the right understanding of the fundamental authorities of the Vedānta must at any rate be examined, even if we should finally be compelled to reject them.

It appears that already at a very early period the Vedānta-sūtras had come to be looked upon as an authoritative work, not to be neglected by any who wished to affiliate their own doctrines to the Veda. At present, at any rate, there are very few Hindu sects not interested in showing that their distinctive tenets are countenanced by Bādarāyaṇa's teaching. Owing to this the commentaries on the Sūtras have in the course of time become very numerous, and it is at present impossible to give a full and accurate enumeration even of those actually existing, much less of those referred to and quoted. Mr. Fitz-Edward Hall, in his Bibliographical Index, mentions fourteen commentaries, copies of which had been inspected by himself. Some among these (as, for instance, Rāmānuja's Vedānta-sāra, No. XXXV) are indeed not commentaries in the strict sense of the word, but rather systematic expositions of the doctrine supposed to be propounded in the Sūtras; but, on the other hand, there are in existence several true commentaries which had not been accessible to Fitz-Edward Hall. it would hardly be practical--and certainly not feasible in this place--to submit all the existing bhāṣyas to a critical enquiry at once. All we can do here is to single out one or a few of the more important ones, and to compare their interpretations with those given by Śaṅkara, and with the text of the Sūtras themselves.

The bhāṣya, which in this connexion is the first to press itself upon our attention, is the one composed by the famous Vaiṣṇava theologian and philosopher Rāmānuja, who is supposed to have lived in the twelfth century. The Rāmānuja or, as it is often called, the Śrī-bhāṣya appears to be the oldest commentary extant next to Śaṅkara's. It is further to be noted that the sect of the Rāmānujas occupies a pre-eminent position among the Vaiṣnava, sects which themselves, in their totality, may claim to be considered the most important among all Hindu sects. The intrinsic value of the Śrī-bhāṣya moreover is--as every student acquainted with it will be ready to acknowledge--a very high one; it strikes one throughout as a very solid performance due to a writer of extensive learning and great power of argumentation, and in its polemic parts, directed chiefly against the school of Śaṅkara, it not unfrequently deserves to be called brilliant even. And in addition to all this it shows evident traces of being not the mere outcome of Rāmānuja's individual views, but of resting on an old and weighty tradition.

This latter point is clearly of the greatest importance. If it could be demonstrated or even rendered probable only that the oldest bhāṣya which we possess, i. e. the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya, represents an uninterrupted and uniform tradition bridging over the interval between Bādarāyaṇa, the reputed author of the Sūtras, and Śaṅkara; and if, on the other hand, it could be shown that the more modern bhāṣyas are not supported by old tradition, but are nothing more than bold attempts of clever sectarians to force an old work of generally recognised authority into the service of their individual tenets; there would certainly be no reason for us to raise the question whether the later bhāṣyas can help us in making out the true meaning of the Sūtras. All we should have to do in that case would be to accept Śaṅkara's interpretations as they stand, or at the utmost to attempt to make out, if at all possible, by a careful comparison of Śaṅkara's bhāṣya with the text of the Sūtras, whether the former in all cases faithfully represents the purport of the latter.

In the most recent book of note which at all enters into the question as to how far we have to accept Śaṅkara as a guide to the right understanding of the Sūtras (Mr. A. Gough's Philosophy of the Upaniṣads) the view is maintained (pp. 239 ff.) that Śaṅkara is the generally recognised expositor of true Vedānta doctrine, that that doctrine was handed down by an unbroken series of teachers intervening between him and the Sūtrakāra, and that there existed from the beginning only one Vedānta doctrine, agreeing in all essential points with the doctrine known to us from Śaṅkara's writings. Mr. Gough undertakes to prove this view, firstly, by a comparison of Śaṅkara's system with the teaching of the Upaniṣads themselves; and, secondly, by a comparison of the purport of the Sūtras--as far as that can be made out independently of the commentaries--with the interpretations given of them by Śaṅkara. To both these points we shall revert later on. Meanwhile, I only wish to remark concerning the former point that, even if we could show with certainty that all the Upaniṣads propound one and the same doctrine, there yet remains the undeniable fact of our being confronted by a considerable number of essentially differing theories, all of which claim to be founded on the Upaniṣads. And with regard to the latter point I have to say for the present that, as long as we have only Śaṅkara's bhāṣya before us, we are naturally inclined to find in the Sūtras--which, taken by themselves, are for the greater part unintelligible--the meaning which Śaṅkara ascribes to them; while a reference to other bhāṣyas may not impossibly change our views at once.--Meanwhile, we will consider the question as to the unbroken uniformity of Vedāntic tradition from another point or view, viz. by enquiring whether or not the Sūtras themselves, and the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya, furnish any indications of there having existed already at an early time essentially different Vedāntic systems or lines of Vedāntic speculation.

Beginning with the Sūtras, we find that they supply ample evidence to the effect that already at a very early time, viz. the period antecedent to the final composition of the Vedānta-sūtras in their present shape, there had arisen among the chief doctors of the Vedānta differences of opinion, bearing not only upon minor points of doctrine, but affecting the most essential parts of the system. In addition to Bādarāyaṇa himself, the reputed author of the Sūtras, the latter quote opinions ascribed to the following teachers: Ātreya, Āśmarathya, Auḍulomi, Kārṣṇāgini, Kāśakṛtsna, Jaimini, Bādari. Among the passages where diverging views of those teachers are recorded and contrasted three are of particular importance. Firstly, a passage in the fourth pāda of the fourth adhyāya (Sūtras 5-7), where the opinions of various teachers concerning the characteristics of the released soul are given, and where the important discrepancy is noted that, according to Auḍulomi, its only characteristic is thought (caitanya), while Gaimini maintains that it possesses a number of exalted qualities, and Bādarāyaṇa declares himself in favour of a combination of those two views.--The second passage occurs in the third pāda of the fourth adhyāya (Sūtras 7-14), where Jaimini maintains that the soul of him who possesses the lower knowledge of Brahman goes after death to the highest Brahman, while Bādari--whose opinion is endorsed by Śaṅkara--teaches that it repairs to the lower Brahman only--Finally, the third and most important passage is met with in the fourth pāda of the first adhyāya (Sūtras 20-22), where the question is discussed why in a certain passage of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Brahman is referred to in terms which are strictly applicable to the individual soul only. In connexion therewith the Sūtras quote the views of three ancient teachers about the relation in which the individual soul stands to Brahman. According to Āśmarathya (if we accept the interpretation of his view given by Śaṅkara and Śaṅkara's commentators) the soul stands to Brahman in the bhedābheda relation, i.e. it is neither absolutely different nor absolutely non-different from it, as sparks are from fire. Audulomi, on the other hand, teaches that the soul is altogether different from Brahman up to the time when obtaining final release it is merged in it, and Kāśakṛtsna finally upholds the doctrine that the soul is absolutely non-different from Brahman; which, in, some way or other presents itself as the individual soul.

That the ancient teachers, the ripest outcome of whose speculations and discussions is embodied in the Vedānta-sūtras, disagreed among themselves on points of vital importance is sufficiently proved by the three passages quoted. The one quoted last is specially significant as showing that recognised authorities--deemed worthy of being quoted in the Sūtras--denied that doctrine on which the whole system of Śaṅkara hinges, viz. the doctrine of the absolute identity of the individual soul with Brahman.

Turning next to the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya itself, we there also meet with indications that the Vedāntins were divided among themselves on important points of dogma. These indications are indeed not numerous: Śaṅkara, does not on the whole impress one as an author particularly anxious to strengthen his own case by appeals to ancient authorities, a peculiarity of his which later writers of hostile tendencies have not failed to remark and criticise. But yet more than once Śaṅkara also refers to the opinion of 'another,' viz., commentator of the Sūtras, and in several places Śaṅkara's commentators explain that the 'other' meant is the Vṛttikāra (about whom more will be said shortly). Those references as a rule concern minor points of exegesis, and hence throw little or no light on important differences of dogma; but there are two remarks of Śaṅkara's at any rate which are of interest in this connexion. The one is made with reference to Sūtras 7-14 of the third pāda of the fourth adhyāya; 'some,' he says there, 'declare those Sūtras, which I look upon as setting forth the siddhānta view, to state merely the pūrvapakṣa;' a difference of opinion which, as we have seen above, affects the important question as to the ultimate fate of those who have not reached the knowledge of the highest Brahman.--And under I, 3, 19 Śaṅkara, after having explained at length that the individual soul as such cannot claim any reality, but is real only in so far as it is identical with Brahman, adds the following words, 'apare tu vādinaḥ pāramārthikam eva jaivaṃ rūpam iti manyante asmadīyāś ca kecit,' i. e. other theorisers again, and among them some of ours, are of opinion that the individual soul as such is real.' The term 'ours,' here made use of, can denote only the Aupaniṣadas or Vedāntins, and it thus appears that Śaṅkara himself was willing to class under the same category himself and philosophers who--as in later times the Rāmānujas and others--looked upon the individual soul as not due to the fictitious limitations of Māyā, but as real in itself; whatever may be the relation in which they considered it to stand to the highest Self.

From what precedes it follows that the Vedāntins of the school to which Śaṅkara himself belonged acknowledged the existence of Vedāntic teaching of a type essentially different from their own. We must now proceed to enquire whether the Rāmānuja system, which likewise claims to be Vedānta, and to be founded on the Vedānta-sūtras, has any title to be considered an ancient system and the heir of a respectable tradition.

It appears that Rāmānuja claims--and by Hindu writers is generally admitted--to follow in his bhāṣya the authority of Bodhāyana, who had composed a vṛtti on the Sūtras. Thus we read in the beginning of the Śrī-bhāṣya (Pandit, New Series, VII, p. 163), 'Bhagavad-bodhāyanakṛtāṃ vistīrnāṃ brahmasūtra-vṛttiṃ pūrvācāryāḥ saṃkikṣipus tanmatānusāreṇa sūtrākṣarāṇi vyākhyāsyante.' Whether the Bodhāyana to whom that vṛtti is ascribed is to be identified with the author of the Kalpa-sūtra, and other works, cannot at present be decided. But that an ancient vṛtti on the Sūtras connected with Bodhāyana's name actually existed, there is not any reason to doubt. Short quotations from it are met with in a few places of the Śrī-bhāṣya, and, as we have seen above, Śaṅkara's commentators state that their author's polemical remarks are directed against the Vṛttikāra. In addition to Bodhāyana, Rāmānuja appeals to quite a series of ancient teachers--pūrvācāryās--who carried on the true tradition as to the teaching of the Vedānta and the meaning of the Sūtras. In the Vedārthasaṅgraha--a work composed by Rāmānuja himself--we meet in one place with the enumeration of the following authorities: Bodhāyana, Ṭaṅka, Dramiḍa, Guhadeva, Kapardin, Bharuci, and quotations from the writings of some of these are not unfrequent in the Vedārthasaṅgraha, as well as the Śrī-bhāṣya.

The author most frequently quoted is Dramiḍa[2], who composed the Dramiḍa-bhāṣya; he is sometimes referred to as the bhāṣyakāra. Another writer repeatedly quoted as the vākyakāra is, I am told[3], to be identified with the Ṭaṅka mentioned above. I refrain from inserting in this place the information concerning the relative age of these writers which may be derived from the oral tradition of the Rāmānuja sect. From another source, however, we receive an intimation that Dramiḍācārya or Draviḍācārya preceded Śaṅkara in point of time. In his ṭīkā on Śaṅkara's bhāṣya to the Chāndogya Upaniṣad III, 10, 4, Ānandagiri remarks that the attempt made by his author to reconcile the cosmological views of the Upaniṣad with the teaching of Smṛti on the same point is a reproduction of the analogous attempt made by the Draviḍācārya.

It thus appears that that special interpretation of the Vedānta-sūtras with which the Śrī-bhāṣya makes us acquainted is not due to innovating views on the part of Rāmānuja, but had authoritative representatives already at a period anterior to that of Śaṅkara. This latter point, moreover, receives additional confirmation from the relation in which the so-called Rāmānuja sect stands to earlier sects. What the exact position of Rāmānuja was, and of what nature were the reforms that rendered him so prominent as to give his name to a new sect, is not exactly known at present; at the same time it is generally acknowledged that the Rāmānujas are closely connected with the so-called Bhāgavatas or Pāñcarātras, who are known to have existed already at a very early time. This latter point is proved by evidence of various kinds; for our present purpose it suffices to point to the fact that, according to the interpretation of the most authoritative commentators, the last Sūtras of the second pāda of the second adhyāya (Vedānta-sūtras) refer to a distinctive tenet of the Bhāgavatas--which tenet forms part of the Rāmānuja system also--viz. that the highest being manifests itself in a fourfold form (vyūha) as Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, those four forms being identical with the highest Self, the individual soul, the internal organ (manas), and the principle. of egoity (ahaṅkāra). Whether those Sūtras embody an approval of the tenet referred to, as Rāmānuja maintains, or are meant to impugn it, as Śaṅkara thinks; so much is certain that in the opinion of the best commentators the Bhāgavatas, the direct forerunners of the Rāmānujas, are mentioned in the Sūtras themselves, and hence must not only have existed, but even reached a considerable degree of importance at the time when the Sūtras were composed. And considering the general agreement of the systems of the earlier Bhāgavatas and the later Rāmānujas, we have a full right to suppose that the two sects were at one also in their mode of interpreting the Vedānta-sūtras.

The preceding considerations suffice, I am inclined to think, to show that it will by no means be wasted labour to enquire how Rāmānuja interprets the Sūtras, and wherein he differs from Śaṅkara. This in fact seems clearly to be the first step we have to take, if we wish to make an attempt at least of advancing beyond the interpretations of scholiasts to the meaning of the Sūtras themselves. A full and exhaustive comparison of the views of the two commentators would indeed far exceed the limits of the space which can here he devoted to that task, and will, moreover, be made with greater ease and advantage when the complete Sanskrit text of the Śrī-bhāṣya has been printed, and thus made available for general reference. But meanwhile it is possible, and--as said before--even urged upon a translator of the Sūtras to compare the interpretations, given by the two bhāṣyakāras, of those Sūtras, which, more than others, touch on the essential points of the Vedānta system[4]. This will best be done in connexion with a succinct but full review of the topics discussed in the adhikaraṇas of the Vedānta-sūtras, according to Śaṅkara; a review which--apart from the side-glances at Rāmānuja's comments--will be useful as a guide through the Sūtras and the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya. Before, however, entering on that task, I think it advisable to insert short sketches of the philosophical systems of Śaṅkara as well as of Rāmānuja, which may be referred to when, later on discrepancies between the two commentators will be noted. In these sketches I shall confine myself to the leading features, and not enter into any details. Of Śaṅkara's system we possess as it. is more than one trustworthy exposition; it may suffice to refer to Deussen's System of the Vedānta, in which the details of the entire system, as far as they can be learned from the Sūtra-bhāṣya, are represented fully and faithfully, and to Gough's Philosophy of the Upaniṣads which, principally in its second chapter, gives a lucid sketch of the Śaṅkara Vedānta, founded on the Sūtra-bhāṣya, the Upaniṣad bhāṣyas, and some later writers belonging to Śaṅkara's school. With regard to Rāmānuja's philosophy our chief source was, hitherto, the Rāmānuja chapter in the Sarvadarśaṇasaṃgraha; the short sketch about to be given is founded altogether on the Śrī-bhāṣya itself.

What in Śaṅkara's opinion the Upaniṣads teach, is shortly as follows.--Whatever is, is in reality one; there truly exists only one universal being called Brahman or Paramātman, the highest Self This being is of an absolutely homogeneous nature; it is pure 'Being,' or, which comes to the same, pure intelligence or thought (caitanya, jñāna). Intelligence or thought is not to be predicated of Brahman as its attribute, but constitutes its substance, Brahman is not a thinking being, but thought itself. It is absolutely destitute of qualities; whatever qualities or attributes are conceivable, can only be denied of it.--But, if nothing exists but one absolutely simple being, whence the appearance of the world by which we see ourselves surrounded, and, in which we ourselves exist as individual beings?--Brahman, the answer runs, is associated with a certain power called Māyā or avidyā to which the appearance of this entire world is due. This power cannot be called 'being' (sat), for 'being' is only Brahman; nor can it be called 'non-being' (asat) in the strict sense, for it at any rate produces the appearance of this world. It is in fact a principle of illusion; the undefinable cause owing to which there seems to exist a material world comprehending distinct individual existences. Being associated with this principle of illusion, Brahman is enabled to project the appearance of the world, in the same way as a magician is enabled by his incomprehensible magical power to produce illusory appearances of animate and inanimate beings. Māyā thus constitutes the upādāna, the material cause of the world; or--if we wish to call attention to the circumstance that Māyā belongs to Brahman as a śakti--we may say that the material cause of the world is Brahman in so far as it is associated with Māyā. In this latter quality Brahman is more properly called Īśvara, the Lord.

Māyā, under the guidance of the Lord, modifies itself by a progressive evolution into all the individual existences (bheda), distinguished by special names and forms, of which the world consists; from it there spring in due succession the different material elements and the whole bodily apparatus belonging to sentient Beings. In all those apparently, individual forms of existence the one indivisible Brahman is present, but, owing to the particular adjuncts into which Māyā has specialised itself, it appears to be broken up--it is broken up, as it were--into a multiplicity, of intellectual or sentient principles, the so-called jīvas (individual or personal souls). What is real in each jiva is only the universal Brahman itself; the whole aggregate of individualising bodily organs and mental functions, which in our ordinary experience separate and distinguish one jiva from another, is the offspring of Māyā and as such unreal.

The phenomenal world or world of ordinary experience (vyavahāra) thus consists of a number of individual souls engaged in specific cognitions, volitions, and so on, and of the external material objects with which those cognitions and volitions are concerned. Neither the specific cognitions nor their objects are real in the true sense of the word, for both are altogether due to Māyā. But at the same time we have to reject the idealistic doctrine of certain Bauddha schools according to which nothing whatever truly exists, but certain trains of cognitional acts or ideas to which no external objects correspond; for external things, although not real in the strict sense of the word, enjoy at any rate as much reality as the specific cognitional acts whose objects they are.

The non-enlightened soul is unable to look through and beyond Māyā, which, like a veil, hides from it its true nature. Instead of recognising itself to be Brahman, it blindly identifies itself with its adjuncts (upādhi), the fictitious offspring of Māyā, and thus looks for its true Self in the body, the sense organs, and the internal organ (manas), i.e. the organ of specific cognition. The soul, which in reality is pure intelligence, non-active, infinite, thus becomes limited in extent, as it were, limited in knowledge and power, an agent and enjoyer. Through its actions it burdens itself with merit and demerit, the consequences of which it has to bear or enjoy in series of future embodied existences, the Lord--as a retributor and dispenser--allotting to each soul that form of embodiment to which it is entitled by its previous actions. At the end of each of the great world periods called kalpas the Lord retracts the whole world, i.e. the whole material world is dissolved and merged into non-distinct Māyā, while the individual souls, free for the time from actual connexion with upādhis, lie in deep slumber as it were. But as the consequences of their former deeds are not yet exhausted, they have again to enter on embodied existence as soon as the Lord sends forth a new material world, and the old round of birth, action, death begins anew to last to all eternity as it has lasted from all eternity.

The means of escaping from this endless saṃśāra, the way out of which can never be found by the non-enlightened soul, are furnished by the Veda. The karmakāṇḍa indeed, whose purport it is to enjoin certain actions, cannot lead to final release; for even the most meritorious works necessarily lead to new forms of embodied existence. And in the jñānakāṇḍa of the Veda also two different parts have to be distinguished, viz., firstly, those chapters and passages which treat of Brahman in so far as related to the world, and hence characterised by various attributes, i.e. of Īśvara or the lower Brahman; and, secondly, those texts which set forth the nature of the highest Brahman transcending all qualities, and the fundamental identity of the individual soul with that highest Brahman. Devout meditation on Brahman as suggested by passages of the former kind does not directly lead to final emancipation; the pious worshipper passes on his death into the world of the lower Brahman only, where he continues to exist as a distinct individual soul--although in the enjoyment of great power and knowledge--until at last he reaches the highest knowledge, and, through it, final release.--That student of the Veda, on the other hand, whose soul has been enlightened by the texts embodying the higher knowledge of Brahman, whom passages such as the great saying, 'That art thou,' have taught that there is no difference between his true Self and the highest Self, obtains at the moment of death immediate final release, i.e. he withdraws altogether from the influence of Māyā, and asserts himself in his true nature, which is nothing else but the absolute highest Brahman.

Thus Śaṅkara.--According to Rāmānuga, on the other hand, the teaching of the Upaniṣads has to be summarised as follows.--There exists only one all-embracing being called Brahman or the highest Self of the Lord. This being is not destitute of attributes, but rather endowed with all imaginable auspicious qualities. It is not 'intelligence,'--as Śaṅkara maintains,--but intelligence is its chief attribute. The Lord is all-pervading, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-merciful; his nature is fundamentally antagonistic to all evil. He contains within himself whatever exists. While, according to Śaṅkara, the only reality is to be found in the non-qualified homogeneous highest Brahman which can only be defined as pure 'Being' or pure thought, all plurality being a mere illusion; Brahman--according to Rāmānuja's view--comprises within itself distinct elements of plurality which all of them lay claim to absolute reality of one and the same kind. Whatever is presented to us by ordinary experience, viz. matter in all its various modifications and the individual souls of different classes and degrees, are essential real constituents of Brahman's nature. Matter and souls (acit and cit) constitute, according to Rāmānuja's terminology, the body of the Lord; they stand to him in the same relation of entire dependence and subserviency in which the matter forming an animal or vegetable body stands to its soul or animating principle. The Lord pervades and rules all things which exist--material or immaterial--as their antaryāmin; the fundamental text for this special Rāmānuja tenet--which in the writings of the sect is quoted again and again--is the so-called antaryāmin brāhmaṇa. (Bṛ. Up. Ill, 7) which says, that within all elements, all sense organs, and, lastly, within all individual souls, there abides an inward ruler whose body those elements, sense-organs, and individual souls constitute.--Matter and souls as forming the body of the Lord are also called modes of him (prakāra). They are to be looked upon as his effects, but they have enjoyed the kind of individual existence which is theirs from all eternity, and will never be entirely resolved into Brahman. They, however, exist in two different, periodically alternating, conditions. At some times they exist in a subtle state in which they do not possess those qualities by which they are ordinarily known, and there is then no distinction of individual name and form. Matter in that state is unevolved (avyakta); the individual souls are not joined to material bodies, and their intelligence is in a state of contraction, non-manifestation (saṅkoca). This is the pralaya state which recurs at the end of each kalpa, and Brahman is then said to be in its causal condition (kāraṇāvasthā). To that state all those scriptural passages refer which speak of Brahman or the Self as being in the beginning one only, without a second. Brahman then is indeed not absolutely one, for it contains within itself matter and souls in a germinal condition; but as in that condition they are so subtle as not to allow of individual distinctions being made, they are not counted as something second in addition to Brahman.--When the pralaya state comes to an end, creation takes place owing to an act of volition on the Lord's part. Primary unevolved matter then passes over into its other condition; it becomes gross and thus acquires all those sensible attributes, visibility, tangibility, and so on, which are known from ordinary experience. At the same time the souls enter into connexion with material bodies corresponding to the degree of merit or demerit acquired by them in previous forms of existence; their intelligence at the same time undergoes a certain expansion (vikāśa). The Lord, together with matter in its gross state and the 'expanded' souls, is Brahman in the condition of an effect (kāryāvasthā). Cause and effect are thus at the bottom the same; for the effect is nothing but the cause which has undergone a certain change (pariṇāma). Hence the cause being known, the effect is known likewise.

Owing to the effects of their former actions the individual souls are implicated in the saṃsāra, the endless cycle of birth, action, and death, final escape from which is to be obtained only through the study of the jñānakāṇḍa of the Veda. Compliance with the injunctions of the karmakāṇḍa docs not lead outside the saṃsāra; but he who, assisted by the grace of the Lord, cognizes--and meditates on-him in the way prescribed by the Upaniṣads reaches at his death final emancipation, i.e. he passes through the different stages of the path of the gods up to the world of Brahman and there enjoys an everlasting blissful existence from which there is no return into the sphere of transmigration. The characteristics of the released soul are similar to those of Brahman; it participates in all the latter's glorious qualities and powers, excepting only Brahman's power to emit, rule, and retract the entire world.

The chief points in which the two systems sketched above agree on the one hand and diverge on the other may be shortly stated as follows.--Both systems teach advaita, i.e. non-duality or monism. There exist not several fundamentally distinct principles, such as the prakṛti and the puruṣas of the Sāṅkhyas, but there exists only one all-embracing being. While, however, the advaita taught by Śaṅkara is a rigorous, absolute one, Rāmānuja's doctrine has to be characterised as visiṣṭa advaita, i.e. qualified non-duality, non-duality with a difference. According to Śaṅkara, whatever is, is Brahman, and Brahman itself is absolutely homogeneous, so that all difference and plurality must be illusory. According to Rāmānuja also, whatever is, is Brahman; but Brahman is not of a homogeneous nature, but contains within itself elements of plurality owing to which it truly manifests itself in a diversified world. The world with its variety of material forms of existence and individual souls is not unreal Māyā, but a real part of Brahman's nature, the body investing the universal Self. The Brahman of Śaṅkara is in itself impersonal, a homogeneous mass of objectless thought, transcending all attributes; a personal God it becomes only through its association with the unreal principle of Maya, so that-strictly speaking--Śaṅkara's personal God, his Īśvara, is himself something unreal. Rāmānuja's Brahman, on the other hand, is essentially a personal God, the all-powerful and all-wise ruler of a real world permeated and animated by his spirit. There is thus no room for the distinction between a param nirguṇam and an aparaṃ saguṇam brahma, between Brahman and Īśvara.--Śaṅkara's individual soul is Brahman in so far as limited by the unreal upādhis due to Maya. The individual soul of Rāmānuja, on the other hand, is really individual; it has indeed sprung from Brahman and is never outside Brahman, but nevertheless it enjoys a separate personal existence and will remain a personality for ever.--The release from saṃsāra means, according to Śaṅkara, the absolute merging of the individual soul in Brahman, due to the dismissal of the erroneous notion that the soul is distinct from Brahman; according to Rāmānuja it only means the soul's passing from the troubles of earthly life into a kind of heaven or paradise where it will remain for ever in undisturbed personal bliss.--As Rāmānuja does not distinguish a higher and lower Brahman, the distinction of a higher and lower knowledge is likewise not valid for him; the teaching of the Upaniṣads is not twofold but essentially one, and leads the enlightened devotee to one result only[5].

I now proceed to give a conspectus of the contents of the Vedānta-sūtras according to Śaṅkara in which at the same time all the more important points concerning which Rāmānuja disagrees will be noted. We shall here have to enter into details which to many may appear tedious. But it is only on a broad substratum of accurately stated details that we can hope to establish any definite conclusions regarding the comparative value of the different modes of interpretation which have been applied to the Sūtras. The line of investigation is an entirely new one, and for the present nothing can be taken for granted or known.--In stating the different heads of discussion (the so-called adhikaraṇas), each of which comprises one or more Sūtras, I shall follow the subdivision into adhikaraṇas adopted in the Vyāsādhika-raṇamālā, the text of which is printed in the second volume of the Bibliotheca Indica edition of the Sūtras.

Footnotes and references:


The Sūtras in which the jñānakāṇḍa of the Veda is systematised go by various names, being called either Vedānta-sutras, or Uttara Mīmāṃsā-sutras, or Brahma-sūtras, or Śārīraka Mīmāṃsā-sutras.


The name of this writer is sometimes given as Dramiḍa, sometimes as Draviḍa. In the opinion of Paṇḍit Rāma Miśra Śāstrin of the Benares College--himself a Rāmānuja and thoroughly conversant with the books and traditions of his sect--the form 'Dramiḍa' is the correct one.


Viz. by Paṇḍit Rāma Miśra Śāstrin. As the Paṇḍit intends himself to publish all the traditional information he possesses concerning the history of the Bhāgavatas and Rāmānujas, I limit myself in the text to stating the most relevant results of my study of the Śrī-bhāṣya and the Vedārthasaṅgraha.


Owing to the importance of the Śaṅkara-bhāṣya as the fundamental work of the most influential Hindu school of philosophy, the number of topics, which might be discussed in the introduction to its translation is considerable. But p. xxiv the limitation of the space at our disposal necessitates a selection, and it can hardly be doubted that, among the possible tasks of a translator, that of ascertaining how far the teaching of Śaṅkara agrees with that of Bādarāyaṇa, and, further, how far either of them represents the true doctrine of the Upaniṣads, is the one first to be. taken in hand.--Some other topics, such as a detailed account of Śaṅkara's teaching according to the bhāṣya, an enquiry as to the books and authors quoted by Śaṅkara, &c., have, moreover, been treated not long ago in a very thorough fashion by Dr Deussen in his 'System des Vedanta.'


The only 'sectarian' feature of the Śrī-bhāṣya is, that identifies Brahman with Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṅa; but this in no way affects the interpretations put on the Sūtras and Upaniṣads. Nārāyaṅa is in fact nothing but another name of Brahman.

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