Consciousness in Gaudapada’s Mandukya-karika

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

This page relates ‘three levels of knowledge’ 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.

Gauḍapada in karikās 87-89 discusses the teaching of the three levels of knowledge.

In karikās 87 he begins thus:

‘(Vedānta) recognises the ordinary (empirical) state of waking in which duality, consisting of objects and ideas of coming in contact with them, is known. It further recognises another more subtle state (i.e., the dream common to all) in which is experienced duality, consisting of idea of coming in contact with the objects, though such objects do not exist’.

According to Śaṅkara, since the philosophies of the disputants are at conflict by contradicting one another, they lead to the relative empirical existence of the world (saṃsāra). Their doctrines are characterised by attachment and aversion. Having shown from their own reasoning that their doctrines are false, it has been concluded that the philosophy of Advaita alone gives us (samyakdarśanam) true knowledge. The philosophy of non-duality (advaita) is by its very nature peaceful, free from the defects of attachment/attraction and aversion/repulsion. This is also free from the fourfold alternative predicates of is, is not, both or neither.

Śaṅkara says that the author Gauḍapāda in this kārikā explains the Vedāntic method of arriving at Truth. The word ‘savastu’ in the kārikā means objects perceived in the empirical state with the help of external sense organs. ‘Savastu’ means accompanied/co-exists with objects. Similarly, the world ‘sopalambhaṃ’ in this kārikā means that which co-exists with experience/perception, it refers to duality (dvaym), this is the common source of all behaviour, including scripture and teacher etc., characterised with subject-object relationship. It is the empirical state (laukikam). This is known as the waking (jāgarita) state. In the Upaniṣads, the waking state is known (iṣyate) to be of such characteristics.

Again the word ‘avastu” in this kārikā means that kind of experience where there is no saṃvrti. That is where there is experience without the help of external sense organs. The word ‘sopalambhaṃ’ means perception as if there are objects even though there is absence of objects. This is known as the dream state (śuddha lakkika). This is again common to all creatures. The pure (śuddham), objectless dream state is different from and subtler than the gross objects of the waking state.

The kārikā 88 is in continuation with the earlier one. Here Gauḍapāda describes the state of deep sleep and attainment of Turīya. He says:

“That (Knowledge) which has neither subject nor object (lokottara) is that which is beyond all empirical experiences. The men of wisdom always described the three, viz., the Knowledge (jñānam), the objects of Knowledge (jñeyam) and the Knowable (vijñeya) as the supreme reality”.

In his commentary, Śaṅkara explains the import of this kārikā. He says that the state which is devoid of percept and perception is said to be beyond all empirical experiences. Experience means the percepts and their perception. In the absence of these, there is sleep containing the seeds of future experiences. This is known as the state of deep sleep (suṣupti).

That knowledge of the three states is the means for the comprehension of the essence of Reality. That (jñāna) knowledge/consciousness by which one knows in succession the waking experience (jāgrat/laukika), the dream experience (svapna/ śuddha laukika) and the sleep (suṣupti/lokattara) is that which knows the three knowables (jñeyas). Apart from these three states there cannot be any other object of knowledge.

They include every entity falsely imagined by other schools of thought. Vijñeya is the Ultimate Reality called Turīya, the Fourth, non-dual, unborn and of the essence of ātman. Thus the knower of Brahman describes all that begin with the waking experience and end with supremely knowable Self/ ātman (vijñeya).

Bhattacharya points out that these three levels of knowledge are described in the Laṅkāvatāvasūtra under slightly different names (laukika, lokottara, and lokottaratama), but the terminological varieties found here in the Gauḍapādakārikā are not unique but are used in various Buddhist works. For instance, in the Madhyāntavibhāga-tīkā the term śuddha-laukikagocaraḥ is found; and in the Triṃśikā, the highest level of knowledge is referred to as lokottara in the compound nirvikalpalokottarajñāna, while in verse 29 of that work Vasubandhu states, “acitto ‘nupalambho’ sau jñānaṃ locottaraṃ ca tat”, revealing the possible model of the use of upalambha in kārikās 87 and 88 of the Gauḍapādakārikā.[1]

Śaṅkara, in his commentary on these kārikās, points out that the three terms are used in the sense of the three states of experience: waking (laukika), dream (śuddhalaukika) and deep sleep (lokottara). According to him the term vijñeya refers to Turīyātman because it is spoken of in Māṇḍāūkya Upaniṣad (7) as, “That is the Self, that is to be known” (saātmāsa vijñeya).

The Vedāntic method of realising the ātman has been already discussed in the āgama prakaraṇa. The same methodology is reiterated here by analysing the experiences in the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep and then to know the witnessing Consciousness (sākṣin) the Turīyaātman.

Gauḍapāda in kārikā 89 states that,

‘When one knows the Consciousness (knowledge) and the three fold objects of knowledge (i.e. the three knowables) one after the other, that man of supreme intellect will realise Omniscience (Brahman) everywhere and in all things in this very life’.

Śaṅkara in his commentary on this kārikā remarks:

“The word jñānam signifies knowledge by which one grasps the significance of the three states (laukika etc. referred to in 87-80). The word ‘jñeya’ or knowable, signifies the three states which should be known”.[2]

Knowledge (consciousness) has three knowables to know, beginning with waking experience. The first consists of the gross ordinary knowable (waking state) with external objects as percepts. The second is more subtle on account of the absence of gross external percepts (dream state). The third is what results from the absence of these two (gross and subtle) and is beyond all empirical experiences (deep sleep state).

In this order, in the absence of these three states (i.e., when the prior state merges in the succeeding one) the Turīya, the fourth, non-dual, unborn, and fearless Supreme Truth is realised. When a man has realised the non-dual ātman he attains in this very life the state of Omniscience (sarvajñatā) which is identical with the nature of Self (ātmasvarūpa). He is the man of the highest intellect (Mahadhīḥ) because his intellect grasps that which transcends all objects of empirical experiences. This Omniscience (sarvajñatā) remains with him everywhere for all times. The knowledge of Self is not subject to any change. The knowledge of one realising the highest Truth is not like the knowledge attained by the other schools of thought, subject to either creation or destruction.

The term krameṇa (step by step) in this kārikā could be argued to indicate the probability that ‘jñāna and the threefold knowable’ refer to the four pādas of (āgama prakaraṇa) first chapter. For Gauḍapāda in kārikā I:24 states that the aumkāra should be known pāda by pāda (pādasaḥ, i.e. step by step).

Bhattacharya notes that the Laṅkāvatārasūtra refers to the ‘trividham jñānam’.[3] The term Omniscience (sarvajñatā) or state of all knowledge in this kārikā is suggestively equated by Bhattacharya with the Mahāyāna concept of Buddhahood or Buddhatva.[4]

In kārikā 90 Gauḍapāda explicates thus: ‘In the very beginning (agrayāṇataḥ) the following four things should be known: the things to be avoided (heya), the objects to be realised (jñeya), the things to be attained (āpya) and the thoughts to be rendered ineffective (pākya). Out of these four, except (anyatra) that which is to be realised (vijñeyāt) viz. the Ultimate Reality, all three, exist only as imagination’.

Śaṅkara says that to overcome a possible doubt, whether the three states of waking, dream and sleep, which are described as knowable one after another, are on that account to be considered real, the following is stated. The things to be given up are the three states of waking, dream and sleep which are erroneously superimposed on ātman, like a snake on a rope. The thing to be known (jñeya) or realised in this context, is the Supreme Reality, free from the four alternative theories of existence, non-existence etc. The things to be attained (āpya) are the three means for the acquisition of highest knowledge, namely, wisdom, childlike innocence, and silence. These virtues should be practised by the sages, who have renounced the three kinds of desire (for progeny, property and fame).

The things to be matured (pākyāni), consists of the defects, such as, attraction, repulsion, delusion etc. These imperfections are known as (kaṣāya). All these, viz. those that are to be avoided, realised, acquired and rendered ineffective are to be known (vijñeyāni) by the sage as the preliminary means for the realisation. The word ‘agrayāṇataḥ’ means in the very beginning. Out of these four (heya, jñeya, āpya and pākya), except that which is to be realised (jñeya or vijñeya) which is the non-dual Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, the other three are perceived and are mere imagination due to ignorance (avidyā). The knowers of Brahman do not regard these three (heya, āpya, and pākya) as real from the ultimate point of view.

This kārikā contains a common term for Mahāyāna’s ‘agrayāna’. Bhattacharya says that, ‘the agrayāna’ in the text is nothing but the Mahayāna, as is evident from a number of Buddhist works in which the word occurs as a synonym for Mahāyāna.[5]

I have already mentioned the interpretation of this kārikā as given by Śaṅkara and Ānandagiri. Karmarkar and Bhattacharya have their own independent separate interpretations of the various words in this kārikā.

They are as follows:

1. Heyāni: According to Śaṅkara the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep.

   According to Bhattacharya it is paratantrasvabhāva as stated by Asaṅga.

   According to Karmarkar heya is to be known from the niṣedhavākyas as stated by the School of Pūrvamīmāṃsā

2. Jñeya: According to Śaṅkara, jñeya is the essence of Ultimate Reality, free from four-fold alternative theories.

   Bhattacharya says this is Parikalpitasvabhāva in Buddhism.

   Karmarkar says that jñeya is what should be known, can be learnt from vidhivākyas from which one knows what sacrifices should be performed and the routine of the sacrificial procedure etc.

3. Āpya: According to Śaṅkara the word āpya means pāṇḍitya, bālya, mauna (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad III-5-1)

   According to Bhattacharya, āpya is prāpya. ‘Attainable’ implies dharmadhātu which is pariniṣpanna in Buddhism.

   Karmarkar says, āpya is the goal, svargaloka, prajāpatiloka etc., which can be secured by the performance of various sacrifices as mentioned in P ūrvamīm āṃsāschool.

4. Pākya: According to Śaṅkara the word pākyāni signifies kaṣāya like rāga, dveṣa, moha etc.

   Bhattacharya says Pākya, ‘to be matured’ refers to the act of maturing by discipline for the attainment of the Absolute.

   Karmarkar says, Pākyas are the various sacrifices.

5. Agrayāṇataḥ: Śaṅkara says it is prathamataḥ or in the first place.

   Bhattacharya says agrayāna is nothing but Mahāyāna.

   Karmarkar remarks agrayāṇa is from Purvamīmāṃsā and undoubtedly a strange expression, but it should not refer to Mahāyāna.

The technical Buddhist interpretations of Bhattacharya do not fit into the Vedāntic Upaniṣadic theory of Gauḍapāda. Karmarkar’s interpretation of the words in the kārikā is ingenious but Gauḍapāda has not discussed Pūrvamīmāṃsā anywhere in his kārikās. I feel in this doubtful position it is safer to follow Śaṅkara’s interpretation, for he knows the meaning of his own sampradāyavid paramaguruācārya much better than contemporary academicians.

Footnotes and references:


Bhattacharya, Āgama śāstra, 197.


Swami Nikhilananda, The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, 299.


Bhattacharya, Āgamāsastra. 198.




Bhattacharya quotes this verse from the Mahāyānasūtralaṅkāra: “Pitakatrayam Sūtravinayābhidharmāḥ tad eva tryaṃhinayānāgrayānabhedena dvayaṃbhavati” which means: There are three baskets (categories of Buddhist study), the sūtra, the vinaya code, and the abhidharma, there are verily these three from the point of view of the difference between Hinayāna and Agrayāna (i.e. Mahāyāna), it becomes two. Bhattacharya, Āgama śāstra, 199.

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