Consciousness in Gaudapada’s Mandukya-karika

by V. Sujata Raju | 2013 | 126,917 words

This page relates ‘How the Atman is obscured by the ignorant’ of the study on Consciousness as presented by Gaudapada in his Mandukya-karika. Being a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, it investigates the nature of consciousness and the three states of experience (i.e., wakeful, dream and deep sleep) which it pervades. This essay shows how the Gaudapadakarika establishes the nature of Consciousness as the ultimate self-luminous principle.

In kārikā 82 Gauḍapāda says:

‘On account of the apprehension of individual objects, Bliss is concealed and misery is always made manifest. Therefore this self-illumined ātman is not realised by common man (even though taught by teachers and scriptures again and again)’.

Śaṅkara begins his commentary on this kārikā in the form of a question and says that this kārikā is Gauḍapāda’s answer to that question: How is it that even though the highest being is of this nature, ever illumined by its own light, the people cannot grasp it?

The reason given by Śaṅkara is that it is because of the false persistent belief, influence/attachment of intense adherence to individual object of duality, Bliss which is the essential nature of ātman is easily concealed. This concealment is directly caused by the perception of duality and does not require any intervening cause. The knowledge of Ultimate Reality is difficult to be attained and misery manifests itself. The Lord is the non-dual ātman and self-shining being. It is for this reason that even though scriptures and Vedāntic teachers proclaim this in various ways, it is not possible for common man to understand/comprehend it. This is also pointed out by the vedic text as “He who speaks of it, is looked upon with wonder and he who has attained it, is equally an object of wonder” (Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.2.7).

Bhattacharya translates sukhaṃ āśriyate nityaṃ and dukhaṃbibriyate sadā as ‘bliss is constantly covered and misery is unfolded’. According to him Bhagavān asau is to be construed with asti, nāsti etc., in the kārikā 83, which does not appear proper. ‘Sukham [sukham]’ and ‘dukhaṃ [dukha]’ are interpreted as adverbial phrases by Karmarkar.

Gauḍapāda in kārikā 83 points out that how the ātman is obscured by the ignorant who associate him with different dharmas, by resorting to the four alternative theories.

He says,

‘People with no discrimination (i.e., having undeveloped intellect like children) conceal It (ātman) by asserting It as existence, or non-existence or a combination of both or absolute non-existence, by predicating of It respectively change, no change, a combination of both and the absolute negation of both’.

According to Śaṅkara the perception that the absolute is existence or non-existence or the like, being the result of careful analysis undertaken by the so called learned serves only as a veil between them and ātman. When this is with the passions of the learned, what can be said of person of a low grade of intellect? Śaṅkara explains the following in his commentary on this kārikā.

Some disputants (Vaiśeṣikas) predicate existence to ātman. Others (Vaināṣika Bauddhas) predicate non-existence to ātman. Others such as, (Pseudo-Vainaṣikas) and Digambaras (Jainas) predicate existence and non-existence together, to ātman. The Nihilists (Madhyamika Buddhists) hold that it is absolute non-existence.

In all these he who predicates existence of ātman associates it with change (calaḥ) to distinguish it from a jar and other objects that have only a transitory existence. They (Vaiśeṣikas) claim that there is the ātman, which is distinct and separate from the body, sense–organs, prāṇa etc. who is knower and the enjoyer of the misery, happiness, desire and knowledge etc. They consider ātman as ‘Existence’ (asti), but it is subject to change.

The doctrine that ātman as non-existent (sthiraḥ i.e. inactive) is immutable, for nonexistence admits of no distinctions. The subjective idealists (kṣaṇika Vijñānavādins) claim that ātman, though separate from the body, is identical with the intellect (buddhi). For them ātman has a momentary existence, and as having existed only for a moment, it cannot be subject to any change or modification. It ever remains constant.

The ātman as ‘existence and is non-existence’ relates to both changeability and immutability. According to Jain school of thought, ātman is ’both existence and nonexistence’ (asti nāsti). They believe that the ātman though separate from the body is of the same size as the body.

The fourth position derives absolute non-existence from its opinion about the nature of things. According to the Nihilists school of Buddhism ātman is absolutely nonexistent i.e. ātman is total non-entity. According to them there is no permanent reality like the ātman. All things and beings end in destruction. Therefore, “Absolute Negation” (nāsti nāsti) is the Supreme Truth.

All these four schools of disputants, trying to find ātman by predicating to It, change, no change, a combination of both and absolute negation (abhāvah), create a veil between themselves and ātman. They are therefore like children (unwise) with no discrimination.

The four alternative theories (kotis)[1] are as follow:

1. Asti Cala:
Some Vādin/disputants (Śaṅkara)
Vaiśeṣikas (Ānandagiri)

2. Nāsti Sthiraḥ:
Vaināṣika (Śaṅkara)
Vijñānavādin (Ānandagiri)
Vijñānavādin and Lokāyatika (Saccidānandendra)

3. Asti-Nāsti-Ubhaya:
Digambara Jains (Śaṅkara) and Ānandagiri

4. Nāsti-Nāsti-Abhāva:
Atyanta-Śūnyavādin (Śaṅkara) and Ānandagiri.

Bhattacharya refers asti to the Vedā ntins as they believe in the existence of ātman (as they cite ‘asti iti eva upalabdhavyaḥ’). But this interpretation is unthinkable because Gauḍapāda, being himself a Vedā ntin, cannot pronounce Vedāntin a ‘Bāli śa’.

Karmarkar perhaps is right when he says ‘asti’ is one of the six bhāvavikāras (viz. jāyate, asti, vipariṇamate, vardhate, upachiyate, vinaśyati) and therefore believes that asti refers to those who believe in vikāras in ātman beginning with asti. Again, instead of applying cala, sthira, ubhaya, and abhāva respectively in the same order to asti, nāsti, ubhaya and abhāva, Bhattacharya changes the order. He relates asti with sthira and nāsti with cala. Karmarkar refers to this change as arbitrary and unconvincing. He says that Gauḍapāda, perhaps, does not think of any particular schools but refers in general to these four alternative theories.

According to Ānandagiri, ‘asti’ is ‘cala’ as this theorist believes in the change or modification (pariṇāma) of ātman on account of happiness, misery etc. “Nāsti” is unchanging as there is no kind of particularity (viśeṣa) or differentiation in it.

Gauḍapāda in kārikā 84 asserts that the Bhagavān is untouched by these four logical alternatives and that one who sees this is all-seeing (Bhagavānāabhir aspṛṣṭo yena dṛṣṭaḥ sa sarvadṛk). The kārikā reads as:

‘By the passion for these four alternative theories described (above), the ātman remains ever concealed. He who knows the ātman (the Lord) as untouched by any of these theories, is the seer of all, is the seer of the Absolute i.e. (is Omniscient)’.

Śaṅkara explains that the ātman (the Lord, Bhagavān) kept concealed by the conclusions of those who try to understand ātman by means of the four alternative theories such as, of existence, of non-existence and so on. But the ātman is untouched by the predicates of any of these four alternate theories like existence (asti), nonexistence (nāsti) etc. That is to say, he is free from all imaginations such as existence etc. According to Śaṅkara that sage (saḥ) by whom the Puruṣa described in the Vedāntic portions of the Upaniṣads, is realised, is omniscient (sarvadṛk), is the seer of all. He is truly an enlightened man.

Śaṅkara, the commentator glosses Bhagavān in these kārikās (83-84) as ‘ātman’ which is sarvadṛk and sarvajña and Bhattacharya thinks that it must refer to dharmadhātu.[2] He says that the dharmadhātu is the same as what we understand by the word prajñāpāramitā. This dharmadhātu is nothing but advaya jñāna, i.e. the jñāna which is free from the relation of the subject and the object and this is identified with Tathāgata.

Bhattacharya gives as an example of this impersonal meaning of Tathāgataḥ a line from the prajñāpāramitārthasaṃgraha of Diṅnāga:

prajñāpāramitājñānam advayaṃsa tathāgataḥ”.[3]

The term sarvadṛk in kārikā 84 is echoed in kārikā 85 by the synonymous term ‘sarvajñā’, in its substantive form of sarvajñatā (omniscience). It was said in the kārikā 84 that one, who has realised the all pervasive Being, becomes omniscient. Gauḍapāda, in kārikā 85 points out that Omniscience being realised, there is nothing that can be desired, for every desire is fulfilled thereby.

He says that,

‘Having attained Omniscience in its fullness, and that state of a Brāhmaṇa which is one and without beginning, middle or end, what remains there to be desired’?

According to Śaṅkara the state of the Brāhmaṇa (i.e. a brahmin) signifies the state in which one is established in Brahman.[4] For a brahmin, declares the ‘Śruti’, ‘is he who departs from this world after knowing this immutable’ (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad III.8.10).[5] The same Śruti text also says: ‘This is the eternal glory of a Brāhmaṇa (i.e. a knower of Brahman) that can neither be increased nor decreased by acts (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad IV.4.23).[6] The state of Brāhmaṇanhood (Brāhmaṇyam padam) is the state which has no beginning, middle, and end. That is to say, this is free from origination, continuance and dissolution.

Having attained to this state there remains nothing more to achieve. One does not make any effort after the realisation of ātman. The smṛti says “He has no end to achieve here either through activity or through inactivity (Bhagavadgītā III.18).

Bhattacharya states that,

“Sometimes a true Brāhmaṇa is regarded as or identified with a Buddha”,

And he quotes the Dharmapada XXVI. 40:

usabhaṃ pavaraṃ vīraṃ mahesiṃ vijitāvinaṃ anejaṃ nahātakaṃ buddhaṃ tam ahaṃ brūmi brāhmaṇaṃ”.[7]

Continuing with the description of Brāhmaṇahood, Gauḍapāda in kārika 86 asserts that this realisation of Brahman is the object of vinaya ‘humility’ and real sama ‘quiescence’ and dama ‘control of the senses’.

He says that,

‘This (i.e., the realisation of Brahman) is the humility natural to the Brāhmaṇas. Their tranquility (of mind) is also declared to be spontaneous (by men of discrimination). They are said to have attained to the state of sense-control (not through any artificial method as it comes quite natural to them). He who thus realises Brahman which is allpeace, himself becomes peaceful and tranquil’.

Śaṅkara glosses the phrase viprānāṃ vinayo as ‘The humility of the Brāhmaṇas’. The terms for meditative disciplines, from yoga tradition, sama (calmness) and dama (sense-control) appear in this kārikā. But the non-yogic attitude of Gauḍapāda is also hinted at by the use of the phrases ‘samaḥ prakṛta’ (naturally calm) and ‘damaḥ prakṛtidāntatvād’ or control of senses through the condition of being disciplined in their very nature as unborn.

Śaṅkara explains that the humility/ disciplined behaviour of the Brāhmaṇas is natural. They have established themselves in the true nature of ātman. Thus their tranquility of mind is all natural and not artificial. Brahman/ ātman is by nature quiescent. Selfrestraint is due to the natural restraint of the senses and that is the calm and peaceful state of ātman/ Brahman. The knower of Brahman attains to natural peace, rests in the serene and calm state which is the characteristic of the nature of Brahman. In other words he becomes the Absolute itself.

Footnotes and references:


Karmarkar, Gauḍapāda-Kārikā, 135.


Bhattacharya, Āgama śāstra, 192.


Ibid., 193.


Nikhilananda Swami, The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, 294.


Som Raj Gupta, The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man, 483.




Bhattacharya, Āgama śāstra, 195.

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