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....

15. Maṇḍanamiśra



R. Balasubramanian

M.A., PH.D.

Maṇḍanamiśra, the author of the Brahmasiddhi, is one of the best known figures in the literature of Advaita Vedanta, and one of the few teachers of great renown who have left the characteristic hallmark of their thought on the stupendous structure of Advaita. In addition to the Brahmasiddhi[1] which considered to be one of the major classical treatises on Advaita, he wrote three works on Mīmāṃsā—the Mīnāṃsānukramaṇikā,[2] the Bhāvanāviveka,[3] and the Vidhiviveka,[4] one work on the philosophy of language— the Sphoṭasiddhi,[5] and one work on the theories of error, viz., the Vibhramaviveka.[6]

It is not difficult for us to fix the upper and the lower limits of the period when Maṇḍana must have lived. Maṇḍana quotes a passage from Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya[7] and also a verse from Gauḍapāda’s Māṇḍūkya-kārikā in the Brahmasiddhi,[8] He cites the authority of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s Ślokavārtika either for approval or criticism many a time.[9] There are evidences to show that he was a younger contemporary of Prabhākara, for while he is critical of Prabhākara’s Bṛhatī,[10] Prabhākara himself does not presuppose Maṇḍana’s works. Śālikanātha, a disciple of Prabhākara, quotes extracts from Maṇḍana’s Brahmasiddhi and criticises them in his Prakaraṇapañchikā.[11] So Maṇḍana was later than Bhartṛhari and Gauḍapāda and earlier than Śālikanātha, and must have been a younger contemporary of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Prabhākara. Though Maṇḍana does not quote or refer to any passage from Śaṅkara’s works, there are internal evidences to show that he is quite conversant with Śaṅkara’s standpoint, particularly with regard to karma and jñāna.[12] A careful study of the Brahmasiddhi will prove that Maṇḍana expounds the philosophy of Advaita drawing his inspiration from the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavadgītā, and the Brahmasūtra. In all probability he was an elder contemporary of Śaṅkara. If the view of modem scholars who assign Śaṅkara to 788-820 A-D. (?) is accepted, then Maṇḍana as a contemporary of Śaṅkara must have lived in the second half of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth century A.D. Though we find it difficult to determine the date of Maṇḍana, we can confidently assign him to the period later than Gauḍapāda and Bhartṛhari and earlier than Śālikanātha.

Maṇḍana’s aim in writing the Brahmasiddhi is to vindicate the authority of the Upaniṣads which intimate the non-dual, ever-existent Brahman. The main purpose of this work as indicated by its title is to ascertain the real nature of Brahman which is the ultimate reality by means of a searching enquiry and critical investigation. The work is divided into four chapters:

  1. the Brahma-kāṇḍa,
  2. the Tarka-kāṇḍa,
  3. the Niyoga-kāṇḍa
  4. and the Siddhi-kāṇḍa.

Of these, the third chapter is the biggest occupying nearly half of the work and the last one the smallest.

Almost the entire first chapter which is devoted to elucidate the substance of the first verse through the authority of Scripture and reasoning is concerned with the main theme of the work, viz., the ascertainment of the true nature of Brahman. Towards the end of this chapter there is a discussion about the place of karma and knowledge in the scheme of discipline leading to liberation. In the Tarka-kaṇḍa there is elaborate discussion about the superiority of the scriptural testimony vis-a-vis perception and other means of knowledge in respect of our knowledge of the trans-empirical reality; and this is followed by a critical examination o£ the nature of difference and the views of the Vaiśeṣikas, the Bhāṭṭas, and the Bauddhas thereon. The central theme of the third chapter is that Brahman-realisation does not fall within the scope of injunction. The explanation of the Advaita view of liberation and the refutation of the Prabhākara theory of akhyāti are also to be found in this chapter. In the last chapter the question how the Upaniṣads convey the sense of Brahman, not already known, through words whose meanings are known in the sphere of ordinary thought is discussed.

Maṇḍana has made valuable contribution to the Advaita ontology. His arguments to show that bliss which is Brahman is not absence of misery or absence of desire, but a positive state of happiness are elaborate and exhaustive. He argues that the transcendental bliss, of which the empirical pleasure is only a fragment, should be conceived positively and not negatively; for only a positive category admits of specification and determination. The more and the less are possible only in the case of a positive category. Brahman or the Self is bliss, because it is the seat of supreme love. There is not only the authority of Scripture but also the evidence of experience to show that the Self is of the nature of bliss. For all the creatures including the smallest worms, the self is dear. The love of one’s self, says Maṇḍana, is nowhere more evident and better expressed than in the desire of every creature, ‘Let me not go out. of existence; let me live for ever’. This love of the Self is consistent only if it be of the nature of bliss.[13]

Maṇḍana’s argument to establish the self-luminosity of Brahman or the Self serves as a model of philosophical reasoning. Brahman, argues Maṇḍana, is never an object in relation to a knowing subject. It cannot be known in the way in which other things are known. The Self which is pure consciousness lights up all our experiences and reveals all the objects of the world, which being insentient are incapable of revealing themselves. While everything else is presented to the Self as an object, the Self is not presented to anything, not even to itself. It follows, therefore, that the ordinary categories like cause and effect, substance and attribute, whole and parts, etc., do not apply to it. It is not an object in relation to a subject; and so it is not in space and time. It is not a cause in relation to an effect, not a substance in relation to attributes, not a whole in relation to its parts, not an identity in the midst of diversity. In short, it is supra-relational and so supra-rational. It is for these reasons that Maṇḍana says that the self-luminosity of the Self which is the knower is its cognizability. It is not cognizable in the usual sense of the term. If we say that the Self is cognizable, it is because it is self-luminous. Its self-luminosity is what is meant when it is treated as cognizable.

Maṇḍana’s discussion of the knower-known relation is very interesting. One of the arguments adduced in favour of the reality of difference centres round the knower-known relation. The object which is known implies that there is a knower independent of and external to it. The knower is inferred from the known, and so the knower and the known are different from each other. Though Maṇḍana spares just twelve lines for the purpose of refuting this view, he is able to show with a remarkable dialectical dexterity that the knower-known relation, far from lending support to the reality of difference, undermines it. His contention is that the knower-known relation is intelligible and consistent only when the oneness of reality is accepted. In the course of the discussion Maṇḍana points out that, if difference is accepted as real, the Self or the knower and the- object which is known cannot be related, since the two are of different nature; the Self or the knower is knowledge pure and absolute, whereas the object which is known is insentient. He rejects the contention that the internal organ (antaḥkaraṇa) could relate the knower which is consciousness and the object which is its opposite. The explanation that is given in terms of the modification (vṛtti) of the internal organ, which by its proximity to the sentient Self acquires lustre by which it is able to reflect the objects, though the underlying consciousness which is the Self remains unaffected by the modifications of the internal organ does not, declares Maṇḍana, serve to show that objects are really seen, and that they are different from the knower. If it be said that the in t ernal organ gets the reflection of the Self, it only means that the internal organ which is insentient appears to be sentient. And so this ‘getting the reflection’ of the sentient Self by the internal organ is not real but illusory. We cannot under these circumstances argue by depending upon this acquired power of reflection of the internal organ, which is mithyā, that objects are really seen and that they are different from the knower.[14] It may not be out of place to point out here that the lme of reasoning which Maṇḍana has adopted in the discussion of the knower-known relation has very much influenced Ānandabodha, who himself admits that he has gathered his materials from others.[15] This admission is significant in view of the fact that most of the arguments which we find in the works of Ānandabodha have been borrowed by the later writers of the Vedanta school.

Being influenced by Bhartṛhari, the noted grammarian-philosopher, Maṇḍana introduces the śabdādvaita[16] in the course of his interpretation of the significance of the word ‘akṣaram ’ contained in the opening verse of the Brahmasiddhi. Brahman, says Maṇḍana, is akṣaram or of the nature of sound (śabdātmtā), because the scriptural texts establish the identity of the mystic sound Om or Praṇava with Brahman.

The Praśna Upaniṣad, for instance, says:

‘That which is the sound Om is verily the higher and the lower Brahman’.[17]

The sound Om is not indicative of Brahman; on the other hand, Om, according to this text, is Brahman. This is on account of the termination ‘kāra’ which refers to the preceding letter or word, and which has its purport in the word and not in the object which the word refers to.[18]

Maṇḍana does not deny that śruti texts sometimes teach meditation on Praṇava as Brahman, since it is difficult to meditate on Brahman which is devoid of attributes without some image or symbol as an aid. Just as a piece of wood or stone taken as the symbol of a deity is worshipped as if it were the deity, so also Brahman is to be meditated upon by means of Om since it is the name for Brahman. Praṇava is commended for purposes of meditation in śruti statements like, ‘Meditate on Om as the Self’, etc.[19] But it should not be construed that Om is commended for meditation in all places. If a śruti text purports to bring out the nature of Om without commending it for meditation, it must be interpreted as teaching the identity of Om with Brahman.

The Taittirīya Upaniṣad, for example, declares the identity of Om with Brahman when it says:

‘Om is Brahman, Om is this all’.[20]

Again, the Chāndogya Upaniṣad says:

‘Just as all leaves are permeated by the stalk, so is all speech permeated by Om. Verily, the syllable Om is all this’.[21]

Maṇḍana vindicates by means of elaborate arguments that the phenomenal world is only an illusory appearance of śabda which is the reality. If the ultimate reality is said to be śabda, there is the fear that it may not be identical with the Self or Brahman of the Upaniṣads; for śabda , it may be thought, is insentient; while the Self is said to be of the nature of knowledge. There is no room for any such fear, for Maṇḍana clearly shows that śabdatattva is identical with knowledge which is Brahman. Knowledge manifests objects in a clear and distinguishable way only when it comes to be associated with sound. Sound is identical with knowledge, for it is the potency of sound (vākśakti) that illuminates objects.

Maṇḍana’s exposition of the nature and locus of avidyā contains several striking features peculiar to the Advaitic tradition as embodied in the Brahmasiddhi. Maṇḍana does not make any distinction between the two terms avidyā and māyā. He uses them as synonyms. It is only in the post-Śaṅkara period that the two terms came to be used in different senses. Avidyā, says Manḍana, is not of the nature of Brahman; nor is it something other than Brahman; it is neither real nor unreal. It is thus known as māyā, mithyāvabhāsa. Since it is neither real as Brahman nor unreal as the sky-flower, it is said to be anirvachanīya. Maṇḍana argues that the jīva is the seat or locus of avidyā which obscures the true nature of Brahman and thus has Brahman as its object.[22] It may be argued that Maṇḍana’s standpoint involves the fallacy of mutual dependence: that is, the jīva is the result of avidyā , and avidyā has to depend upon the jīva which is its locus. Maṇḍana refutes the criticism that his explanation involves the fallacy of mutual dependence. First, avidyā does not admit of logical analysis in terms of consistency and cogency. How can we expect avidyā to stand to reason? Therefore the objection that avidyā which is dependent on the jīva for its existence cannot itself be the cause of the jīva is meaningless. Second, since both avidyā and the jīva are beginningless like the sprout-seed series, there is no logical priority as between jīvatva and avidyā; as for chronological priority, the question does not arise as neither has a beginning in time.

How is avidyā to be removed? Avidyā, says Maṇḍana, is destroyed by the practice of aids (sūdhana) like śravaṇa or the understanding of the truth from the scriptural texts, manana or the investigation of the truth in the light of reason, dhyānābhyāsa or repeated contemplation upon the truth as enjoined by Scripture.[23] Repeated contemplation upon the truth precoded by śravaṇa and manana annuls the multifarious cognitions of diversity (bheda-darśana), as it is opposed to it. The knowledge that results from śravaṇa, manana and dhyānābhyāsa is itself one which involves distinctions. Śravaṇa implies the distinctions of the teacher, the taught, and the teaching, and so the knowledge which arises therefrom is a form of avidyā. For the sake of our understanding, this can be characterised as the good phase of avidyā. It serves to remove the multifarious cognitions of difference due to avidyā. The latter can be called the bad phase of avidyā. Not only does it remove the world of diversity projected by avidyā but also removes itself, just as the clearing-nut purifies the turpid water of dirt by removing it and also removes itself, just as poison nullifies another poison and also annihilates itself. When all the illusory differences conjured up by avidyā as well as the different aids (sādhana-bheda) like śravaṇa, manana., etc., disappear, the jīva shines forth remaining in its natural state, pure and unperturbed. In support of his account of the removal of ignorance— how the good phase of avidyā, viz., the knowledge resulting from śravaṇa, manana and dhyānābhyāsa, removes its bad phase, viz., the appearances of plurality due to nescience—Maṇḍana quotes the authority of the scriptural text which declares:

‘Knowledge and ignorance, he who knows the two together crosses death through ignorance, and attains immortality through knowledge.[24]

The meaning of the text, according to Maṇḍana, is this: avidyā and vidyā must be taken together, as the former is the means to the latter or as the former is dependent on the latter. The bad phase of avidyā is ‘mṛtyu’ which is removed by the good phase of it consisting of śravaṇa, manana and dhyānābhyāsa, and the knower of truth thus remains what he has always really been, the eternal, free, self-luminous consciousness.

Maṇḍana’s contribution to epistemology is as valuable as his contribution to the metaphysics of Advaita. His refutation of the Prābhākara theory of akhyāti is thorough and elaborate.[25] Though the theory of akhyāti alone is examined in the Brahmasiddhi, the other important theories of erroneous cognition are discussed in his Vibhrama-viveka. It should be pointed out in this connection that the discussion of the theory of akhyāti in the Vibhrama-viveka and the Brahmasiddhi is almost identical. By maintaining the Bhāṭṭa theory of viparīta-khyāti which is practically the same as the Nyāya theory of anyathā-khyāti, Maṇḍana prepares the way for the anirvachanīyakhyāti of Advaita.

According to Maṇḍana, the knowledge which we get from the Upaniṣads is indirect and mediate (parokṣa) and necessarily involves relation in some manner like any other cognition arising from a valid verbal testimony. Meditation upon the content of the verbal cognition is necessary in order to transform the indirect and mediate knowledge into direct and immediate experience. So repeated contemplation (prasaṅkhyāna) on the import of the principal texts (mahāvākyas) is a ‘must’ in order to attain, the direct intuition of Brahman. Vāchaspati who is greatly indebted to Maṇḍana follows him in this respect, as in many others.

Like other Advaitins, Maṇḍana too upholds the doctrine of jīvanmukti or liberation in the living state.[26] He contends that at the onset of knowledge ignorance and all karmas, the fructified as well as the unfructified, disappear. In support of his contention, he quotes the Muṇḍaka text:

‘The knot of the heart is cut, all doubts are dispelled and his karmas terminate, when He is seen, the higher and the lower.’[27]

If all karmas including prārabdha cease to exist at the time of Brahman-realisation, a person who attains perfect intuition should become disembodied immediately; and this would go against the Chāndogya text[28] which fixes the falling off of the body as the limit for the attainment of final release (kaivalya) . In order to show that his position does not come into conflict with the Chāndogya text, Maṇḍana interprets it in two ways. One interpretation results in the advocacy of sadyomukti or complete liberation from embodied existence immediately following Brahman-realisation, while the other involves the acceptance of jīvanmukti. Since Maṇḍana refers to both sadyomukti and jīvanmukti, he is compelled to explain the sthitaprajña described in the Gītā[29] in two ways. From the point of view of sadyomukti, the sthitaprajña may be taken as a sādhaka who has closely approximated to realisation and is awaiting it. According to the second interpretation, the Gītā description of sthitaprajña may be taken to refer to a jīvanmukta. Maṇḍana does not say that in all cases the body should fall off as soon as Brahman-realisation is attained. Though prārabdha ceases to exist like other karmas together with avidyā at the onset of knowledge resulting in complete liberation from embodied existence, it may be that in certain cases the body persists for a short while even after realisation, bcause of the impressions of prārabdha. There is therefore no justification for the view that Maṇḍana does not advocate jīanmukti,

Maṇḍana’s evaluation of karma and its relation to knowledge exhibits certain features peculiar to the tradition of Advaita which he upholds. According to him, karma and knowledge are related as means and end.[30] He does not accept the view that karma and knowledge, being diametrically opposed to each other, could not be brought into relation. He maintains that both karma and meditation play a vital role in bringing about Self-realisation.

The verbal cognition which arises from the Upaniṣads should be supplemented by certain aids (sādhana) like contemplation in order to attain Brahman-intuition. As a result of repeated contemplation (abhyāsa), the impressions of the knowledge of the nondual Self obtained from the Upaniṣads grow and develop in such a way that they are able to remove the impressions of avidyā and thereby bnng about the final manifestation of the real nature of the Self. Since karmas are prescribed by Scripture,[31] they are also useful in this regard. Whereas the usefulness of contemplation is visible, that of the karmas is imperceptible. The karmas belonging to the āśramas are exceptional means (sādhana-viśeṣa). Though he readily admits that it is possible for one who observes lifelong celibacy to attain Self-realisation exclusively through contemplation in association with the control of the mind, etc., without performing scriptural rites, he says that one who combines the contemplative and the ritualistic disciplines will be able to reach the goal far more quickly than otherwise. The āśrama-karmas are helpful to the seeker after truth as a horse is to the wayfarer in reaching the goal quicker. Though the goal may be reached by plodding on without a horse, yet a horse is sought to be employed for gaining time or for avoiding inconvenience. Karmas are of as much service to a seeker after truth as a horse is to one who would otherwise have to trudge the whole distance on foot.[32]

Maṇḍana is a firm believer in āśrarna-dharmas, not as ends in themselves but as very valuable means to the end. By recommending the association of the contemplative discipline with the ritualistic discipline for the purpose of attaining Self-realisation, he has distinguished himself as the foremost among ‘integrative Advaitins’.

A respected authority on Mīmāṃsā and a reputed teacher of Advaita, a doughty champion of the Upaniṣadic tradition and a master-mind skilled in dialectical reasoning, Maṇḍana occupies a high pedestal in the imposing edifice of Advaita Vedānta. His contribution to Advaita is of lasting importance. Among the lustrous names that adorn the history of Advaita, Maṇḍana’s is a prominent one.

Footnotes and references:


Edited by Dr Ganganatha Jha, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series.



Madras University Sanskrit Series No. 6.


The Pandit, Benares.


Madras University Sanskrit Series No. 6.


Madras Oriental Series No. 1


BS, Part I. 26.


BS, Part I. p. 150.


BS, Part I , pp. 10, 11, 38, 40.


Compare BS, Part I, pp. 23-26 with Bṛhati (Madras University Sanskrit Series No. 3), p. 20, 22.


Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series No. 17, pp. 154, 155.


BS, Part I, pp. 32-34.


BS, Part I, p. 5.


BS, Part I, p. 8.


Nyāyamakaranda (Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series No. 38), p. 359.


BS, Part I, pp. 17-18.




Vyākarana-vārtika, 3-3-108.


Munḍaka-upanisad , 2-2-6.






BS, Part I, p. 32.


BS, Part I, p. 12.


Īśāvasya Upaniṣad, XI.


BS, Part I, pp. 136-146.


BS, Part I, pp. 129-130.








BS, Part I, p. 82.


Brhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 4-4-22.


BS, Part I, pp. 36-37.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: