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....

29. Vidyāraṇya



T. M. P. Mahadevan
M.A., PH.D.

Vidyāraṇya flourished in the fourteenth century A.D. as the family guru of Harihara I and Bukka, the founders of the Vijayanagara kingdom. He is regarded as having been the friend, philosopher and guide of the early rulers of Vijayanagara, and in the field of religion and philosophy, he is classed with the greatest of the post-Śaṅkara Advaitins.

The works that are attributed to Vidyāraṇya are Pañchadaśī, Vivaraṇa-prameya-saṃgraha, Dṛg-dṛśya-viveka and Jīvanmukti-viveka. The Pañchadaśī is a comprehensive manual of Advaita-Vedānta, enjoying great popularity with those who want to have a clear presentation of the truths of Advaita. As the Pañchadaśī is the magnum opus of Vidyāraṇya,[1] a brief exposition of its character and content would give an indication of the greatness of Vidyāraṇya and the special features of his teachings.

There are two types of Advaita-works: (1) those that are intended to serve as books of instruction for the follower, and (2) those that seek to show through dialectics that the philosophical positions that oppose Advaita are not tenable. The Pañchadaśī belongs to the first type. As Śrī Vidyāraṇya says even at the outset, the aim of his work is to teach the supreme truth in an easily understandable manner to those whose hearts have been purified through the worship of the lotus-like feet of the Guru (i, 2). It is not that argumentation and dialectics are not employed in the Pañchadaśī; but they are subordinated to the principal aim of conveying the light of truth to the disdple. The reasoning based on the principle of co-presence and co-absence (anvaya-vyatireka), for instance, is had recourse to for showing that the self which is of the nature of consciousness is constant and therefore real, while the phenomena constituting the world are inconstant and therefore non-real (ii, 60 ff). The method of dialectical refutation of systems such as the Mādhyamika is resorted to (see e.g., ii, 30 ff). The central objective of the Pañchadaśī, however, is to provide guidance to the seeker through instruction. While sound logical reasoning helpful to an understanding of scriptural teaching is to be welcomed, quibbling should be avoided, (see viii, 67, 68; ii, 30).

When it is said that scripture is the basic authority for Vedanta, ii does not mean that the Vedāntin’s attitude is one of blind acceptance of, or unthinking belief in, the words of the Veda. The words are not mere sounds; they convey meaning; and the meaning should be understood. Reasoning is helpful in understanding the teaching of scripture. Although it is true that the ultimate Reality taught there is not graspable either through thoughts or through words, nevertheless logic is useful in a negative way in so far as it can assure us as to what is not real, and language is of service in indicating the nature of the Real. The final court of appeal is experience—the plenary experience which is the fruit of inquiry. In fact, the texts of scripture are but indicators of that experience. Thus, in Vedānta, the nature of the Truth is sought to be expounded on the triple basis of scripture, reasoning, and experience (śrutyuktyanubhūtibhyaḥ, v, 56 & xi, 89).

The Pañchadaśī is so named because it consists of fifteen chapters (Pañchadaśa-prakaraṇa). The fifteen chapters are grouped into three quintads: viveka-pañchaka (dealing with the discrimination of the real from the non-real), dīpa-pañchaka (expounding the nature of the Self as pure consciousness), and ānanda-pañchaka (dwelling on the bliss-nature of Brahman). It is for the sake of convenience, stated that the three quintads have for their theme the three aspects of Brahman, sat (existence), chit (consciousness), and ānanda (bliss), respectively. But it should be borne in mind that such a statement could only be roughly true. The essential doctrines of Vedānta occur in almost every chapter. There are, naturally, repetitions; but repetitions are necessary for enabling the reader to understand firmly the truths of Vedānta. Śrī Vidyāraṇya has succeeded in an eminent way in setting forth the essentials of Advaita in this great work of his— the Pañchadaśī.

The basic skill that the disciple should develop in himself is the ability to discriminate the real from the non-real. The Pañchadaśī indicates the various methods by means of which the discrimination could be gained. One of the most useful methods is the analysis of the three states of experience, viz., waking, dream, and deep sleep. As a result of such analysis one realises that the Self persists in all the states while the objects vary and are inconstant The same conclusion may be reached by an investigation into the five sheaths (kośas) that cover the Self, as it were. The principle which is applied in this investigation is: what is grosser and more external and less pervasive is less real than what is subtler and more internal and more pervasive. Applying this principle one arrives at the truth that the Self is supremely real because it is the subtlest and the inmost being which is nondual (see ch. iii). Just as the individual soul and its states could be analysed with a view to discovering the Self, the external objective world could also be analysed with the same end in view. Beginning with the grossest element, earth, we have progressively subtler elements; water, fire, air, and ether. But the Self is subtler than ether. One may think of the Self without ether, but not of ether without the Self. One may deny anything, but not the Self. To doubt the existence of the Self is as ridiculous as the doubt expressed by a man “Have I a tongue or not?” (iii. 20).

The Self is of the nature of pure consciousness; it is unfailing light, ever-present awareness. This is explained by means of apt analogies. Like the anvil in the smith’s shop which serves as the basis for beating the metal into various shapes, without itself changing, the Self remains as the immutable witness of changes in the physical and the psychical orders; hence it is called the kūṭastha (see ch. viii). Just as the lamp set on a dramatic stage sheds light on all concerned during the performance, and shines also after everyone has left the theatre, even so the witness-consciousness manifests all things, viz., the egoity, the intellect, and the objects, and continues to shine even when they are non-existent. Just as the lamp on the stage illumines without moving and without being affected by the movements of the actors and the audience, even so the witness which is eternal and immutable manifests all things both within and without, and their absence too (see ch. x.). Just as the canvas is that whereon the various painted figures appear, both of inanimate things like mountains and animate beings like men and animals, so also on the consciousness which is the immutable Self, the variegated world appears (see ch. vi).

The bliss-nature of the Self (Brahman) is explained in great detail in the last five chapters. The Self is not only existence and consciousness, it is also bliss, the supreme value. The teaching of Yājñavalkya to Maitreyī in the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad constitutes the basis for understanding the bliss-nature of the Self. The core of the teaching is that the Self is the seat of supreme love. Anything becomes dear, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Self. There are, it is true, different notions of Selfhood, three of which may be distinguished: the secondary self, the illusory self, and the principal self. When a parent identifies himself with his son, for instance, the self-hood of the son in relation to the parent is secondary. The identification of the self with the body, etc., is illusory. The principal Self is the unconditioned nondual reality. It is the Self in the principal sense that is of the very essence of bliss or love. But even when the self in the other two senses is loved, it is because of the mistaken or wrong identification with the true Self. Thus it is easy to see that the Self, whatever be the conception thereof, is the centre and seat of love. If there be love for any other object, it is for the sake of the Self to which that is subsidiary. It is a reflection of the bliss that is the Self that is experienced as happiness or pleasure in the objects. A right understanding of the happiness that is derived from the contact of the mind with the objects may serve as the door to the bliss that is Brahman. When an object is being enjoyed, the mind turns inward and becomes calm. In that state of mind the bliss that is the Self is reflected. It is this which is experienced as happiness or pleasure. The Brahman-bliss or a reflection of it is experienced in other states also. In deep sleep one experiences unqualified bliss; only that experience lies under the cover of nescience. Just before falling into deep sleep, and immediately for a few moments after getting up from sleep, one has a taste of happiness prospectively or retrospectively. In the interval between two modes of the mind also, one experiences the reflection of bliss. The yogi enjoys bliss in samādhi. The jñānī realises directly the bliss that is the Self.

The bliss that is the Self (Brahman) is unexcellable and unconditioned. A calculus of bliss is given in the Upaniṣads. Starting with the unit-measure of human bliss, the higher levels are reached by multiplying each lower level of bliss by a hundred. One may thus go upto the bliss of the Creator Brahmā. But Brahman-bliss is beyond all calculation. And, the wise one’s experience of the plenary bliss admits of no degrees. Having achieved all that was to be achieved, and having done all that was to be done, the illumined one rests in perfect contentment and peace (xiv, 58).

The nature of Brahman that is the Self is, as we have seen, existence (sat) , consciousness (chit), and bliss (ānanda) (see also xiii, 63). Existence, consciousness, and bliss are not parts of Brahman, or its attributes; they constitute its essential nature (svarūpa). They are not three separate constituents: existence is consciousness, and consciousness is bliss. It is because the world of plurality is characterised by impermanence, inertness, and disvalue that in order to distinguish the non-dual Brahman from the world that Brahman is said to be existence, consciousness, and bliss. In Brahman’s essential nature, however, there is no split, and no distinction. Brahman is free from any of the three kinds of differences, sajātīya, vijātīya and svagata (ii, 20-21).

How does it happen that the one Reality appears as the world of plurality? The Vedānta formulates the concept of māyā precisely to show that no satisfactory answer can be given to this vexatious question since causation itself is unintelligible.

There are three standpoints from which māyā may be envisaged, says Śrī Vidyāraṇya:

  1. the standpoint of revealed experience (śrauta),
  2. that of reasoning (yauktika),
  3. and that of the ordinary men of the world (laukika).

From the standpoint of the ordinary worldly men, māyā is real (vāstavī); they have no reason to doubt its reality. From the standpoint of those who have realised the teaching of scripture, māyā is unreal (tuccha); for them, there is no world to be accounted for; māyā is that (yā) which is not (). And, for those who seek to understand through reasoning māyā is indeterminable (anirvachanīya) (vi, 130).

From the standpoint of reasoning, māyā is uncharacterisable either as real, or as unreal, or as both real and unreal. The world of plurality appears in Brahman on account of māyā, even as a snake appears in what is a rope. This is known as vivarta, transfiguration.

There is no use asking questions about māyā. The more we question, the deeper will the mystery become. Māyā is that which makes apparently possible what is inherently impossible (vi, 235). Wonder is māyā ’s garment; inscrutable is its nature (vi, 139). What is necessary is that we should endeavour to transcend māyā (vi, 138). And, in this endeavour, the world of plurality in which we as empirical individuals live can be a help instead of serving as an obstacle (iv, 42).

The iīva is the non-dual Self appearing in a limited or conditioned form on account of nescience. In what manner is the appearance of the jīva to be understood? Śrī Vidyāraṇya who follows mainly the Vivaraṇa tradition, teaches a modified form of the reflection-theory or pratibiṃba-vāda which is referred to as ābhāsa-vāda. While the Vivaraṇa view regards the reflection as real and as identical with the prototype, the theory sponsored in the Pañchadaśī holds that the reflection (ābhāsa) is mere appearance, an illusory manifestation. The apposition between the jīva and Brahman, according to this view, is through sublation (bādha), and not through identification (aikya).

The direct means to release, Advaita holds, is the path of knowledge (jñāna). As mokṣa, is the very nature of the Self, it is not an experience which is to be brought about through works (karma). The path of knowledge consists of ‘hearing’ (i.e., study, śravaṇa), reflection (manana), and meditation (nididhyāsana) (i, 52-54).

What is the immediate instrument of release? Is it śravaṇa of the mahāvākya ‘That thou art’? Or, is it continued meditation (also called prasaṃkhyāna) ? According to the Bhāmatī view verbal testimony (śabda), of which the mahāvākyas form part can yield only mediate knowledge, and not immediate or direct knowledge. If the mediate knowledge gained from verbal testimony is to be transformed into immediate experience, there should be continued meditation till this is achieved; and this is possible because the mind which is the instrument in meditation is a sense organ (indṛya). The Vivaraṇa view maintains that the mind is not a sense organ, as it is an auxiliary to all pramāṇas and that verbal testimony can yield immediate knowledge if the object is immediate. To illustrate this point the story of the ten travellers is given (vii, 22 ff). There is no object more immediate than the Self. Hence, the mahāvākya “That thou art” imparts to the competent hearer the direct experience of the non-dual Self.

Giving a citation from the Vākyavṛtti, Śrī Vidyāraṇya says,

“The major texts are for the sake of imparting direct knowledge of Brahman. In regard to this there is no room for doubt” (vii, 70).

Meditation, however, is not without its great use. In chapter ix, ‘Dhyāna-dīpa’, Śrī Vidyāraṇya compares it to samvādi-bhrama, delusion which culminates in a fruitful result. The man who mistakes the lamp-light for a gem and gets to the place whence the light comes, gains nothing, whereas the person, who mistakes the light of the gem for the gem itself, obtains the precious stone. Although both are cases of delusion, the latter is a fruitful one. When the attributeless Brahman is meditated upon, the content of meditation is not itself Brahman. But the contemplation leads to Brahman-realisation. Thus, for those who are not qualified for gaining true knowledge through enquiry, Śrī Vidyāraṇya recommends the yoga of meditation (dhyāna).

In more than one place in the Pañchadaśī, the state of Brahman-realisation is described in glowing terms, and the incomparable happiness of the jīvanmukta is praised. It is only from the standpoint of the unreleased that the continuance of the body of the jivanmukta is explained as due to the residue of prārabdha (karma which is responsible for his present body), and illustrations, such as the continued rotation of the potter’s wheel for a time even after the propelling rod has been removed, are offered, In truth, however, the mukta has no body, and there are no grades of mukti.

In the Pañchadaśī Vidyāraṇya reveals himself as a writer not only with great philosophical insight but also with equally great literary skill. The Pañchadaśī is not only a veritable mine of Vedāntic treasure, but is also a work with poetic charm that delights the reader. No wonder, it is one of the most favoured texts and has found a permanent place among the Advaita classics. And, Vidyāraṇya, its author, takes his rank with the best preceptors of Advaita after Śaṅkara. His contribution to Advaita is as immense as it is abiding.

Footnotes and references:


There is a tradition that the Pañchadaśī is the joint work of Bhāratītīrtha and Vidyāraṇya. Another view is that it is the work of Bhāratītīrtha who also bore the title ‘Vidyāraṇya’.