adhyAsa (part 1)

Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.

adhyAsa is possibly the most important concept in Advaita – certainly in Advaita as ‘formulated’ by Shankara, since he wrote an extended introduction to his commentary on the Brahmasutras on this topic. I wrote this article originally for Advaita Vision but (as far as I know) it is no longer available at that site so I am reproducing it here. It will be in 4 or 5 parts.

These notes are essentially a rewording, omitting most of the Sanskrit, of the notes provided by Achacrya Sadananda on the Advaitin List and I gratefully acknowledge his permission for this. In turn, he wishes that I acknowledge his own indebtedness to H.H. Swami Paramarthananda of Madras, himself a student of Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda. His lectures form the basis of these notes.

The brahmasUtra is the third of the so called ‘Three pillars of vedAnta‘, the first two being the upaniShad-s (shruti – the scriptures ‘revealed’ and not ‘authored’ by anyone) and the bhagavad gItA (smRRiti – the ‘heard’ scriptures passed down by memory). The brahmasUtra is a very terse and logical examination of the essential teaching of the upaniShad-s, seeking to show the nature of brahman and the superiority of the philosophy of vedAnta. It is usually studied with the help of a commentary or bhaShya, the best known being the one by Shankara.

It is in the nature of man, with his intellect, that he seeks to enquire into the causes of observed phenomena. The six topics of enquiry for a ‘student of life’ relate to the individual, the world, the cause for these two, suffering, liberation from this suffering and the means for attaining such liberation. Any consistent explanation for all of these is deemed a philosophy or darshana. There are 12 specific philosophies identified in India. Six of these are called Astika and the other six nAstika. Astika refers to those systems which accept the veda-s as a valid means for acquiring knowledge. Conversely, the nAstika philosophies do not recognise the veda-s as valid or reliable sources of knowledge. These latter philosophies prefer to rely upon direct perception and inference or reasoning as the means for knowledge.

The first of the six nAstika philosophies is materialism, said to originate with the teacher of the Gods, BRRihaspati. It is said that this was devised in order to mislead the demons so that they could be destroyed. It emphasises the sense pleasures as being the purpose of life and does not accept such things as heaven and hell, the soul or veda-s. Modern science, with its belief that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter, may come close to this philosophy. Materialism only recognises direct perception as a valid means of knowledge. This philosophy is not discussed in the brahmasUtra since it is not considered worthwhile.

The second nAstika philosophy is Jainism. Some aspects of this are discussed and refuted later. The remaining four cover the various aspects of Buddhism. Buddha himself did not teach any real system of philosophy; he only had various dialogues with his disciples. Hence Buddhism was not initially well-developed. Later however it developed into four branches, each of which is analysed and criticised in the brahmasUtra.

Although all of the six Astika philosophies accept the veda-s as a valid means of knowledge, three of them do not accept brahman and four of them given more importance to reasoning than to the veda-s. Only two give primary importance to the veda-s. One of these however, considers that the first part of the veda-s – the one concerned with ritualistic action – is more important than the upaniShad-s. The second gives primary importance to the last portion of the veda-s, and it is this that is the principal subject of the brahmasUtra-s.

A sUtra literally means ‘a thread’. It is a very concise statement expressing the essential meaning of a given idea in a logical manner, free from any defects. A simple translation is therefore not adequate on its own and requires additional explanation in the form of a commentary or bhaShya. Because there exist possibilities for ambiguity, the various commentaries have led to 10 different teachings each claiming that theirs represents the intended meaning. The three most popular (in historical sequence) are known as advaita, vishiShTAdvaita and dvaita. The commentary by Shankara is concerned with advaita.


A brief outline of the brahmasUtra

The brahmasUtra consists of four chapters; each chapter is divided into four sections and each section is divided into topics of which there is a total of 191 or 192 depending on how the sUtra-s are divided. Most of the topics are concerned with statements in the ten principal upaniShad-s. The topics are divided into sUtra-s of which there is a total of 555.

Each of the four chapters is concerned with a particular theme. The first chapter endeavours to establish that the central theme of the upaniShad-s is brahman. This is necessary because some of the other philosophies do not accept this. The second chapter shows there are no contradictions in the teaching since this would constitute a defect. There are three types of contradiction defined – internal (i.e. the vedic statements themselves contradicting each other); contradiction with statements from smRRiti; contradiction with logic. The third chapter discusses the means for attaining brahman, both direct and indirect (the latter covering such aspects as ritual etc., which are merely means for purifying the mind). The fourth chapter is about the ‘fruits’ of knowledge of brahman, namely liberation from bondage and suffering, both delayed and immediate.

Each topic consists of five aspects. The first is the ‘subject’, which is usually an idea from one of the ten principal upaniShad-s. The second element is the ‘doubt’ inherent in the subject (if there is none, there is no need for enquiry). Thirdly, the objections and reasoning of other philosophies are considered. Fourthly, these objections are logically refuted and a conclusion consistent with advaita is drawn. Finally, the connection with the previous topic is shown.

Shankara’s introduction to the bhaShya (called adhyAsa bhaShya) is central to the entire advaitic philosophy, covering the explanation of the basic errors or mistakes (adhyAsa ) that we make that lead us to our belief in a separate existence and hence to the eternal cycle (saMsAra) of suffering. Prior to discussing this, however, there is an introduction to the use of inferential logic, since this is fundamental for understanding the arguments of the brahmasUtra.

A distinction is made between valid and illusory knowledge. What constitutes a valid means of knowledge is crucial to the understanding of this subject of adhyAsa. (Indeed, all Indian philosophies discuss epistemology before moving on to ontological issues.) The senses are usually regarded as our principal source of knowledge but, apart from the fact that information from the senses is not always reliable, much of what is discussed is not directly observable to the senses. Thus we have to be aware of the source of the information and the types of error that can occur in using this as a means of knowledge.

There are six accepted means of knowledge or pramANa. The first is direct perception either through one of the senses or possibly imagined by the mind (of things which are not directly present). The senses are however very specific. For example the eyes can only detect colour and form and are unable to hear sounds from an object. In fact, each pramANa has validity in its own sphere. If something is directly perceived, inference is not needed; if something can be inferred, the shAstra-s are not required.

The next valid means of knowledge is inference from something that cannot be directly perceived. If something cannot be seen directly, nor inferred, it may it be reported in the scriptures or science or directly from someone who can be trusted. For this latter means, the principal source is the veda-s. It is believed that the veda-s were not written by humans and are thus free from the defects associated with human authorship. Effectively they are presumed to have been revealed to the sages, who then passed them on to their disciples by word of mouth. Since they are heard from a teacher they are called shruti.

The three remaining means of knowledge are considered as part of inference itself.
The brahmasUtra relies heavily on inference and shruti as sources of knowledge. It should be noted that the brahmasUtra itself was written by a human and therefore cannot itself be considered as a valid means of knowledge.

Read Part 2 of the series…

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