Preceptors of Advaita

by T. M. P. Mahadevan | 1968 | 179,170 words | ISBN-13: 9788185208510

The Advaita tradition traces its inspiration to God Himself — as Śrīman-Nārāyaṇa or as Sadā-Śiva. The supreme Lord revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the Creator, who in turn imparted it to Vasiṣṭha....

14. Sarvajñātman



N. Veezhinathan
M.A., PH.D.

In order to keep alive the Advaitic tradition lor the benefit of posterity, Śrī Śaṅkara established Maṭhas or centres of religious learning and practices in various parts of India. Badari, Dvāraka, Puri, Śrīngeri, and Kāñchī were his farflung spiritual capitals. Of these, the Maṭha at Kāñchī is the foremost and is termed the Kāmakoṭi-pīṭha. And, Śrī Śaṅkara himself assumed the headship of this pīṭha. Ordained as Sannyāsin by Śrī Śaṅkara himself, Sarvajñātman was nominated successor to the Kāmakoṭi-pīṭha with Sureśvara—his preceptor, as his protector.

In the history of-the Kāmakoṭi-pīṭha and in the Advaita literature, Sarvajñātman stands out as a prominent figure. He is well known to be the author of the work Saṃkṣepaśārīraka which is a succint exposition in verses of the views of Śrī Śaṅkara as stated in his bhāṣya on the Brahma-sūtra. He also wrote another work on Advaita entitled Pañchaprakṛyā. which is divided into five sections. The first of them deals with the different kinds of meanings which a word may have. The next three sections treat of what are described as the ‘great-sayings’ of which ‘tat tvam asi’ is a familiar example and point out how they should be interpreted. The last section is devoted to the elucidation of the nature of bondage and release. This work summarizes the teachings of the Saṃkṣepaśāriraka.

Apart from his works on Advaita, he wrote a short treatise— Pramāṇalakṣaṇa on the Mīmāṃsā system. This work deals with the various pramāṇas of the Mīmāṃsakas and doses with an estimate of their epistemological doctrines and it is available in manuscript in the Madras Government Oriental Manuscripts library.

The Saṃkṣepaśārīraka has one thousand two hundred and forty stanzas in various metres and consists of four chapters.

1) The first comprises five hundred and sixty three verses and corresponds to the first adhyāya of the Brahmasūtra termed ‘samanvayādhyāya’, and as such it is the most important adhyāya. It is devoted to the correct interpretation of the different texts of the Upaniṣads pointing to the attributeless Brahman.

2) The second comprises two hundred and forty eight verses and it corresponds to the second adhyāya of the Brahmasūtra termed ‘avirodhādhyāya’. It shows that the Upaniṣadic teaching is not stultified by other proofs like perception, etc., or by the views of other philosophical systems.

3) The third contains three hundred and sixty six verses and it corresponds to the third adhyāya of the Brahmasūtra termed ‘sādhanādhyāya’ and it is devoted to an exposition of the means to the realization of Brahman.

4) The fourth contains sixty three verses and it corresponds to the fourth chapter of the Brahmasūtra termed ‘phalādhyāyā’ and it deals with the nature of liberation.

Though the titles of the four adhyāyas of this work correspond to those of the Brahmasūtra , and the subject-matter treated of in each is the same as in the bhāṣya of Śrī Śaṅkara on the corresponding chapters of the Brahmasūtra, all reference to the nature of the qualified Brahman, the methods of meditative worship thereof and the result arising therefrom, is avoided. On this ground, the title Saṃkṣepaśārīraka (the gist of the Śārīrakabhāṣya of Śrī Śaṅkara) is significant.

This work Samkṣepaśārīraka has eight commentaries. The earliest of them seems to be the Siddhānta-dīpa by Viśvaveda and it is available in manuscript [R. 1558 (b) ] in the Madras Government Oriental Manuscripts Library. Another commentary called Sambandhokti is by Vedānanda and it is also available in manuscript (R. 2919) in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras. Rāmatīrtha, the disciple of Kṛṣṇatīrtha, wrote a commentary known as Anvayārthaprakāśikā published in the Anandāśrama Sanskrit series, Poona. He has based his commentary on the commentary Siddhāntadīpa already referred to. His disciple Puruṣottama wrote a Commentary called Subodhinī.

This also has been published in Ānandāśrana Sanskrit series, Poona. Nṛsiṃhāśrama, the disciple of Jagannāthāśrama who was a contemporary, of Kṛṣṇatirtha, the preceptor of Rāmatīrtha referred to above, wrote a commentary called Tattvabodhinī published in the Princess of Wales Sarasvatībhavana texts series. Madhusūdanasarasvati wrote an authoritative commentary Sārasaṅgraha, and it is published in the Kāśī Sanskrit series. This commentary is based on the one by Viśvaveda referred to above. Apart from these commentaries, Aufrecht mentions one more commentary known as Vidyāmṛtavarṣiṇi. Another commentary by one Pratyagviṣṇu is referred to by Madhusūdanasarasvati in his Sārasaṅgraha.

Sarvajñātman has distinct views on the important Advaitic concepts, and they have considerable importance in the historical development of Advaita. His merits appear most clearly when he is contrasted with other Advaitic writers like Padmapāda, Sureśvara and Vācaspatimiśra.

Sarvajñātman’s most important contribution is his view regarding the locus and content of avidyā. He holds[1] that the pure consciousness is the locus and content of avidyā as against Vācaspati who maintains that the individual soul is the locus of avidyā, while Brahman is its content The latter view is refuted by Sarvajñātman on the ground that the notion of individual soul derives its existence from avidyā and as such it is posterior to avidyā. The latter cannot abide in a substratum which is decidedly subsequent to it. Sarvajñātman further contends[2] that the pure consciousness is the locus and content of avidy ā neither in its absolute form, nor in its blissful form, but in the form of inner self (pratyakchaitanya). This he proves on the basis of the experience ‘I do not know myself’. It is Sarvajñātman who explains the apparently contradictory statements of Śrī Śaṅkara regarding the presence of avidyā in Brahman in deep sleep. To any serious student of Advaita, the contradiction in the statements of Śrī Śaṅkara, viz., avidyā does not exist in the state of deep sleep and avidyā exists in Brahman in that state[3] remained unsolved. And, Sarvajñātman explains[4] this view of Śrī Śaṅkara by stating that avidyā is not determinated perceived in the form of ‘I do not know myself’ in the state of deep sleep and it is with this view that Śrī Śaṅkara has said that avidyā does not exist in that state. Really it exists in that state in Brahman, as it is evident from the reminiscent experience in the form ‘I did not know anything when I was asleep’.[5] Similarly Sarvajñātman explains Śrī Śaṅkara’s statement[6] that the individual soul is the locus of avidyā, by contending[7] that avidyā though present only in the pure consciousness is revealed in the form ‘I am ignorant’ by the intellect which is the limiting adjunct of the individual soul. It is well-known that the nature of a revealing medium is such that what is revealed through it appears as though present in the medium itself. The mirror which reflects the face appears to contain the face. In the same way, the intellect which is the revealing medium of avidyā reveals it as present in itself and consequently in the consciousness delimited by it, that is, the individual soul. Avidyā, however, is present in the pure consciousness.

Sarvajñātman’s contribution to the theory of the nature of Brahman also is noteworthy. Relying on the method of gathering the unrepeated words found in the affirmative Upaniṣadic texts to arrive at the exact nature of Brahman—the method prescribed by the author of the sūtras in the aphorism ‘ānandādayaḥ pradhānasya’ (III, iii, 11), Sarvajñātman affirms that, on the whole only ten words convey the essential nature of Brahman in an affirmative manner. And those words are: nitya, śuddha, buddha, mukta, satya, sūkṣma, sat, vibhu, advitīya and ānanda.[8]

This same method is adopted in the case of the negative texts also. But, Sarvajñātman suggests that as the elements that are to be negated in Brahman are numerous, the words found even in all the negative Upaniṣadic passages are not exhaustive and hence many words should be gathered. Herein arises the question of relation between the affirmative and negative Upaniṣadic passages. Sarvajñātman says[9] that the negative Upaniṣadic texts, by denying all duality, confirm the knowledge of the absolute nature of Brahman arisen from the affirmative Upaniṣadic passages.

The question whether lordship is natural to Brahman or not is answered[10] in the negative by Sarvajñātman, on the ground that lordship involves a reference to the controlled beings; and whichever is dependent on something else is illusory, and hence lordship, being illusory, cannot be natural to Brahman. This conclusion seems contrary to the view of the author of the sūtras, who in the aphorism ‘parābhidhyānāttu tirohitam tato hyasya bandhaviparyayau’ (III, ii, 5) holds that lordship is natural to Brahman. Sarvajñātman, with a refreshing independence of judgment, points out[11] that the author of the Sūtras has said so from the opponent’s stand-point and it is not his final view. And to substantiate this point, he refers[12] to the other aphorism ‘kāmādītaratra tatra cāyatanādibhyaḥ’ (III, iii, 39) which treats lordship on a par with attributes like possession of desire, etc., which cannot be said to be natural to the attributeless Brahman. Hence, Sarvajñātman holds[13] that Brahman is eternal, pure, consciousness, ever-released, truth, subtle, existent, all-pervasive, absolute, and bliss. And herein lies Sarvajñātman’s contribution to the theory of the nature of Brahman.

As regards the elucidation of the nature of the supreme lord and the individual soul, Sarvajñātman adopts the well-known theory, the pratibiṃba-vāda, and in this he seems to have been influenced by the views of Padmapāda.

Coming to the practical side of Advaita, Sarvajñātman speaks[14] of asceticism as a necessary condition for attaining the knowledge of Brahman. He holds[15] that the remote means such as the performance of rituals including the optional ones (kāmya-karma) lead to the desire to know Brahman; and after this result is achieved the remote means should not be pursued. Again, Sarvajñātman holds[16] that the Upaniṣadic texts alone give rise to the intuitive knowledge of Brahman; and śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana remove the impediments which are present in the intellect of the aspirant who has such a knowledge and which hinder the knowledge from becoming effective in dispelling avidyā.

Summing up, Sarvajñātman as a philosopher has a considerable historical importance. His main contribution to Advaita rests in his clear exposition, in verses, of Śrī Śaṅkara’s views as stated in his bhāṣya on the Brahmasūtra. His work is entitled Saṃkṣepaśārīraka; and the title is very significant, as throughout the work, Śrī Śaṅkara’s phrases and arguments recur. He is most concerned with finding a way of reconciling the apparent contrary statements of Śrī Śaṅkara. His treatise is systematic, critical, and without any trace of dogmatic assertion. He does accept the foundations laid by his predecessors, yet he makes improvement on them. He is best in detail and in criticism. His style is easy and unpedantic. He has an admirable literary sense, and, in fact, only several centuries after Sarvajñātman the world could produce Vidyāraṇya, who like Sarvajñātman, wrote in verses on the Advaitic concepts in an admirable way. Sarvajñātman is a great philosopher who has influenced profoundly the Advaita-thought in the subsequent ages. As Madhusūdanasarasvati characterizes him, he knows the traditional interpretation of the Advaita Vedānta. His views are very respectfully cited by Appayya Dīkṣita, Madhusūdanasarasvati and Brahmānandasarasvati.

śrīkānchīkāmakoṭyākhya-pīṭhādhiṣṭhitam adbhutam,
bhāvaye ’ham mahā-moha-dhvāntasaṅghātaham mahaḥ.

Footnotes and references:


Saṃkṣepaśārīraka, I, 319,


Ibid., II, 211-212.


Ibid., III, 125-126.


Ibid., III, 123.


Ibid., III, 120-122.


Ibid., II, 175.




Ibid., I, 173.


Ibid., I, 263.


Ibid., III, 151-170.


Ibid., III, 175.


Ibid., III , 177.


Ibid., I , 173.


Ibid., III, 358-361.


Ibid., I, 64; III, 330-340.


Ibid., III, 299.

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