Vedanta says that what we truly are is Existence-Consciousness-Infinity (= Brahman).
The universe is an illusory appearance on/of this substratum of Consciousness. It is not real.
The jiva (= mind = I-thought = ego) is part of this illusory appearance. It is a result of the erroneous super-imposition of an I-thought arising between the insentient appearance and Consciousness. Thereafter desire, fear and suffering, like and dislike ensues.
Many teachers seem to selectively pick and choose what advaita means by jnana, dodge between relative and absolute truths, and argue that some Vedantic statements are figurative and should not be taken literally. What they singularly fail to do is to consider holistically the teaching and the logical consistency inherent in its philosophy and method.
We have recently been discussing the extent to which Self-realisation is more than some knowledge acquired in the mind, but actually is equivalent to a total dis-identification with the illusory body-mind, dissolution of particular consciousness and identification with all. Sankara and the Upanishads continually emphasise this.
Suresvara, in his very first chapter of this independent work, establishes that Knowledge is the only direct means to liberation, but he also acknowledges the role of action to purify the mind. He essentially says desireless action leads to turning within and renunciation of all actions, which facilitates the assimilation of knowledge, which destroys ignorance and yields moksha.
The Upanishads say that the path of Jnana is like walking along a razor’s edge. This is perhaps most true in acquiring a proper understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, which teaches both the path of Knowledge and the path of Action, and also has chapters referring to Bhakti Yoga, Dhyana Yoga, etc. It can indeed be a razor’s edge to know which is being referred to at different points of this text. Hence it is critical to be guided by Sankara’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and to assimilate it as a whole. In this article, I restrict myself predominantly to quotes from BG and Sankara’s bhasya thereon, in order to maintain Sankara’s consistency in exegesis, and also as BG is said to be the epitome of the Upanishads.
Chapter two of BG is said to articulate all that needs to be known, and the rest of the book is just an elaboration thereof, because Arjuna did not quite understand Krishna’s teaching. In this chapter, Krishna articulates directly ajata vada, in verses 19 to 21. Let’s consider verse 21 as it is exemplary of this, and Sankara’s bhasya is extensive, covering many salient points:
2.21: “O Partha, he who knows this One as indestructible, eternal, birthless and undecaying, how and whom does that person kill, or whom does he cause to be killed”
In “The Essential Adi Sankara”, D.B.Gangolli tranliterates a work by Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji. In note 207, he provides a superb commentary on Brhad Up 3.5.1, which I have set out below. He starts of saying that sravana can be sufficient for a qualified seeker. But then goes on to detail what should be done if sravana does not yield jnana nishtha. By imputation then, these practices are already inherent in the qualified seeker, who merely needs sravana but once.
Therefore the knowledge of this Self by the process of ‘Not this, not this’ and the renunciation of everything are the only means of attaining immortality . . . The discussion of the knowledge of Brahman, culminating in renunciation, is finished. This much is the instruction, this is the teaching of the Vedas, this is the ultimate goal, this is the end of what a man should do to achieve his highest good.
– Sankara’s Bhasya on Brhadaranyaka Up 4.5.15
I can think of no better contemporary commentary on the essence of Sankara’s meaning than the words of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.