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....

37. Nṛsiṃhāśrama



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

Nṛsiṃhāśrama was a pupil of Gīrvāṇendra Sarasvatī, and Jagannāthāśrama, who was a contemporary of Kṛṣṇatīrtha, the preceptor of Rāmatīrtha. Rāmatīrtha has been assigned to the middle of the sixteenth century.[1] We may, therefore, conclude that Nṛsiṃhāsrama flourished in the second half of the sixteenth century. He wrote many works such as

  • Advaita-dīpikā,
  • Advaita-pañcha-ratna,
  • Advaita-bodha-dīpikā,
  • Advaita-vāda,
  • Bheda-dhikkāra,
  • Vāchārambhaṇa,
  • Vedānta-tattva-viveka,

and commentaries on the Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka and Pañchapādikā-vivaraṇa, called Tattva-bodhinī, and Pañcha-pādikā-vivaraṇa-prakāśikā respectively.

Nṛsiṃhāśrama is mainly concerned with stressing the fact of the identity of the individual soul with Brahman and the illusory character of the universe. The universe, according to Advaita, is neither real like Brahman, nor an absolute nothing like the horn of a hare, nor real and unreal at once; it is anirvachanīya or indescribable either as real or as unreal. This concept of anirvachanīya is termed ‘mithyā’; and mithyātvam is defined by the author of the Vivaraṇa as ‘pratipannopadhau traikāikanishedha - pratiyogitvam ’. An object ‘silver’ (say) that appears in the nacre is mithyā because it is non-existent in the locus, that is, the nacre in which it appears. And, the characteristic of mithyātva pertains to the object ‘silver’. Nṛsiṃhāsrama[2] maintains this definition of mithyātva. He defines ajñāna as the beginningless primal cause of the universe and as one which is removable by the intuitive knowledge of Brahman. It has Brahman as its content.

‘anādi upādānatve sati jñāna-nivartyam
ajñānam, nikhila-prapañchopādāna-brahma-gocharam
eva ajñānam

Nṛsiṃhāśrama does not adopt any new line of argument in the interpretation of the Vedānta. In handling the dialectic on difference also Nṛsiṃhāśrama is only following the footsteps of his predecessors, Chitsukha and Śrī-Harsha, with some elaborations here and there.[4] In his commentary on the Saṃkṣepaśārīraka, however, Nṛsiṃhāśrama makes clear the Advaita position.

In the Saṃkṣepaśārīraka Sarvajñātman holds that Brahman is truth, eternal, pure, consciousness, ever-released, subtle, existent, all-pervasive, absolute, and bliss.[5] An objection may be raised as to the many qualities which are ascribed to Brahman as its essential nature. The qualities of truth, consciousness and bliss no doubt constitute the essential nature of Brahman. But the remaining qualities such as eternity, purity, etc., are not natural to Brahman. Whenever it is said that Brahman is eternal (nitya), pure (śuddha), etc., it does not mean that eternity, purity, etc., are its nature; but the words only convey the absence of their opposites. And no quality involving the aspect of non-existence can be the nature of Brahman, as the latter is existent On this ground, some hold that eternity, etc., are not natural to Brahman, like truth (satya), consciousness (jñāna) and bliss (ānanda).

Sarvajñātman merely refers[6] to this objection and he raises[7] a doubt as to its validity; but he does not endeavour to refute the objection. Nṛsiṃhāśrama while commenting on this verse has shown that there are no reasons in favour of the objection and strong reasons against it. He points out that just as the words satya’, ‘jñāna’, and ‘ānanda’ secondarily signify Brahman as of the nature of truth, consciousness, and bliss, so also the words ‘nitya’, etc., found in the Upaniṣadic passages secondarily signify Brahman as of the nature of eternity, etc. Moreover, if eternity, purity, etc., are not natural to Brahman, then the inevitable consequence would be that Brahman should be taken as transient, impure, etc. Hence it should be held that eternity, purity, etc., also are the essential nature of Brahman.

‘nityam vibhum sarvagatam susūkṣmam’,
‘asnāviram śuddham apāpaviddham’,
‘vimuktaścha vimuchyate’,
‘ityādiśrutibhiḥ nityatvādināmapyaviśeṣeṇa svarūpatvena avadhāraṇāt’.
‘nityatvādīnām svarūpabahirbhāve svarūpasyānityat-vādidoṣaprasangāścha’.

According to Advaita, Brahman itself without undergoing any change appears as the universe. The Advaitins by postulating a Reality behind the universe differentiate their doctrine from the śūnya-vāda of the Mādhyamika. The latter holds that the world is non-existent The Advaitins, on the other hand, hold that the world is neither existent nor non-existent, but different from being existent and non-existent. It may be said that although the doctrine of Advaita is not similar to the śūnya-vāda of the Mādhyamika, yet it is identical with the Vijñāna-vāda school of Buddhism. The latter admits the reality of consciousness alone. What is of the nature of consciousness is indeed indivisible; but by those whose vision is confused it is seen to be, as it were, differentiated into the perceived object, the perceiving subject, and perception. And these are false. The Advaitins also maintain that Brahman alone which is pure consciousness is real and it appears as the universe consisting of the knower, objects, and the empirical knowledge that is, the mental state. And the universe is not real. It is, therefore, argued that the Vijñāna-vāda and the doctrine of Advaita are similar.

The Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka contains[8] a refutation of this objection. Nṛsiṃhāśrama while commenting on the verse[9] of the Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka makes clear that though the two doctrines seem to be similar, yet there are some characteristics which clearly mark the difference between the two schools. In the first place, the Advaitin holds that the four factors, namely, the knower, the object, the proof, and the empirical knowledge are different among themselves, while the Vijñāna-vādin denies any difference among them. In the second place, the four factors referred to above are created by the beginningless avidyā abiding in the eternal Brahman and they are real until the realisation of Brahman. But the Vijñāmvādin neither admits an eternal Brahman, nor the beginningless avidyā. Never does he posit any reality to the universe. In the third place, Brahman which is pure consciousness is eternal and is different from empirical knowledge or the mental state which arises from the contact of sense-organs with objects and which is insentient. Brahman itself is the witness; without depending on any sense-organ, it perceives the universe. The Vijñāna-vādin, on the other hand, holds the insentient mental state itself to be consciousness and as it depends on the sense-organ for its origin it is mutable. Moreover, unlike the Advaitins who hold it to be eternal and unitary, he admits it to be momentary and manifold. From this it would be clear that the doctrine of Advaita and the Vijñāna-vāda differ so markedly that there can be no identity between them.

sajātīyādibhedaśūnyaḥ paramātmā svādhyastam sakalam
prapañcham sādhyatīyasmābhiruchyate, na thathā
bauddhaiḥ, tanmate buddhivṛttereva jaḍāyā
vijñānatvenāṅgīkārāt; etadvijñānasya kṣaṇikasya
kṣaṇikaprapañchasādhakatvād vijñānānām anekatvāccha
ato’pi na sāmyam

Of all the concepts of Advaita, the concept of removal of avidyā (avidyōr-nivṛtti) is the most difficult. There are three views in Advaita regarding the nature of the removal of avidyā. The first view is that it is identical with Ātman. The second is that it is different from Ātman and yet not anirvachanīya but of a fifth kind (pañcarnaprakāra). And the third view is that it is identical with the intuitive knowledge of Brahman that brings about the annihilation of avidyā. These three views are advocated by Vimuktātman in his Iṣṭa-siddhi. We shall now examine these views more closely.

The first view is that avidyā-nivṛtti is identical with Ātman. Those who disagree with this view hold that Ātman is ever-existent and so avidyā-nivṛtti which is identical with Ātman also is ever-existent. Since it is ever-existent, no attempt need be made by any aspirant to achieve this avidyā-nivṛtti. This is the first defect. The second defect is: if avidyā-nivṛtti is ever-existent like Ātman, then its correlate ‘avidyā’ could not have existed in Brahman. Consequently, three could be no transmigration at all

The second view is that avidyā-nivṛtti is different from Ātman and yet it is not anirvachanīya but of a fifth kind. According to this view, avidyā-nivṛtti is not real; because if it were real there would be a real entity other than Brahman and this goes against the spirit of Advaita. It is not unreal, because if it were so it would be similar to an absolute nothing like a flower sprung from the sky and hence it cannot be achieved through knowledge. Further, being an absolute nothing, it cannot be considered as an ultimate value (puruṣārtha). It is not real and unreal at once for that would violate the law of contradiction. It is not anirvachanīya either; because its correlate avidyā is anirvachanīya and so its negation must be other than anirvachanīya. On these grounds it is held that avidyā-nivṛtti is of a fifth kind.[10]

Nṛsiṃhāśrama points out[11] certain difficulties with regard to this view. In the first place, the Upaniṣadic texts that convey Brahman as non-dual are valid only when everything apart from Brahman is held to be anirvachanīya. According to this view, avidyār-nivṛtti is not anirvachanīya. So the Upaniṣadic texts that convey Brahman to be non-dual cannot be valid. In the second place, since avidyā-nivṛtti is not sat it cannot be considered to be an ultimate value. Nṛsiṃhāśrama holds that on these two grounds the view that avidyā-nivṛtti is of a fifth kind must be given up.

The difficulties regarding the second view lead one to main-tain the first view that avidyā-nivṛtti is identical with Ātman. Two defects have been pointed as regards this view. Hie first defect is: If avidyā-nivṛtti is identical with Ātman then it is ever-existent and so no attempt need be made by any aspirant to achieve it. Nṛsiṃhāśrama answers[12] this objection by pointing out that when intuitive knowledge arises there is the manifestation of Ātman which is of the nature of avidyā-nivṛtti. And when the knowledge does not arise, Ātman in its unconditioned nature does not manifest itself. Hence it is only by courtesy that avidyā-nivṛtti is said to be achieved by knowledge. So the first objective is not tenable.

‘Jñāne sati avidyānivṛttirūpātmasphuraṇam tadabhāve tadasphuraṇam ityetāvataiva upachārāt sādhyatvokṭiḥ [13]

‘jñānābhāve ajñānānuvṛttiḥ, jñānadośāyam tu tadanuvṛttiḥ ityetāvataiva avidyānivṛtteḥ jñānasādhyatopacārāt, taduktam āchāryaih-tatkaivalyam ataḥ sādhyam upachārāt prachakṣate[14]

The second objection is that as Ātman is ever-existent its correlate avidyā could not exist in Ātman. So there could be no transmigration at all. Nṛsiṃhāśrama does not answer this objection. The answer to this objection lies precisely in the weakness of the view that avidyā-nivṛtti is of a fifth kind. Avidyā is held to be anirvachanīya and this would be possible only when its non-existence also is present in the same substratum at the same time.

The view that avidyā-nivṛtti is identical with Ātman is maintained by Śrī Śaṅkara himself in his ‘Haristuti ’ wherein he says that Brahman (Hari) is of the nature of the annihilation of avidyā, the cause of the universe.

‘tam saṃsāra-dhvānta-vināśam harimīḍe’.

The third view is that avidyā-nivṛtti is identical with the intuitive knowledge of Brahman. The intuitive knowledge of Brahman is the annihilating factor of avidyā. Apart from the rise of the annihilating factor, it is not intelligible to hold anything like the annihilation of a thing. Pratyagsvarūpa emphasizes this point in his commentary ‘Nayanaprasādinī ’ on the Tattvapradīpik ā of Chitsukha. This view is considered to be more logical than the other views. That ripe scholar Dr. Rāma Varma Parīkṣit maintains that the Naiyāyikas also must subscribe to such a view. He holds that of the many causes that contribute to the origination of a pot the most important cause is the antecedent non-existence of the pot (ghaṭa-prāga-bhāva). So according to the Nyāya school, pot is the effect of its non-existence. That school further holds that the pot which is created is of the nature of the annihilation of its non-existence. Ghaṭa is ghaṭa-prāgabhāva-kārya; and it is admitted to be of the nature of ghaṭa-prāgabhāva-dhvaṃsa. Similarly, jñāna is only a mental state. Mind is an effect of māyā or avidyā . Hence the mental state which is jñāna is also the effect of māyā or avidyā. Jñāna is avidyā-kārya; and it is intelligible to hold that it is of the nature of avidyā-nivṛtti.[15]

Nṛsiṃhāśrama, however, does not refer to the third view regarding avidyā-nivṛtti.

While it is correct to say that Nṛsiṃhāśrama has not put forward any new interpretation of the Vedānta, yet as a commentator he is superb. His commentary on the Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka amply testifies to this observation.

Footnotes and references:


See the article on ‘The date of Rāmatīrthayati’ by P. K. Gode In the Adyar library Bulletin, Vol. VI, part II, pp. 107-110.


Vedānta-tattva-viveka, p. 12. The Pandit, Vol. XXV, May 1903. See Das Gupta, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 217.


Vedānta-tattva-viveka, p. 43.


For more details see A Critique of Difference, by S. S. Suryanarayana Sastri and T. M. P. Mahadevan, Bulletins of the Department of Indian Philosophy, University of Madras, No. 2.


Samkṣepaśārīraka, I. 173.


Ibid ., I, 174.




Ibid., II, 27.




Vide Nrisiṃhāśrama’s preface to his commentary on the Saṃkṣepa-śārīraka, IV, 12.


Ibid., IV, 15.






Nṛsiṃhāśrama’s commentary on the Saṃkṣepaśārīraka, IV, 24.


Ghataprāgabhāvakāryasya ghatasya taddhvaṃsarūpatayā naiyāyikairaṅgīkṛtatvāt ajñānakāryasyāpi jñānasya taddhvaṃsarūpatvam sūpapannam iti śrīparīkṣinmahārājāḥ.

See Brahmānandīyabhāvaprakāśa, published by The Private Secretary to His Highness The Maharaja of Cochin, 1961, p, 12.

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