Book Review: Heart of Sri Shankara

Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji
(5 January 1880 – 5 August 1975) was the founder of the Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya in Holenarasipura, Hassan district, Karnataka, India. Born as Sri Yellambalase Subbarao, he worked as a school teacher in the Indian state of Karnataka. He gave many lectures and wrote many articles on the Vedanta in English, Kannada and Sanskrit.

Satchidanandendra Saraswati was a philosopher who dedicated all his life for the Vedanta sAdhana and attained brahma-j~nAna. He was known as a jIvanmukta sage. He was the best example of a Sanskrit saying, “One should spend one’s life until sleep and until death only in Vedantic contemplation”. (Wikipedia)

Heart of Shri Shankara Swami Satchidanandendra, translated by A. J. Alston. A detailed consideration of what Shri Shankara said about the nature of ignorance, and other views. A translation of a work by Shri Swami Satchidanandendra first published in 1929 under the title Refutation of Root Ignorance or The Heart of Shri Shankara. It considers the philosophical view that there is a ‘root-ignorance’ that ‘creates’ the phenomenal world and which in some sense really exists. The Swami sets out to show that this view arose among Advaitins after Shri Shankara and is contrary to his true teaching.

978-0-85424-050-0 £12.00 from Shanti Sadan in the UK, (Still £12 over 10 years after this review was written!) or available as a PDF download from

First of all, it must be said that this is a book for advanced students only, who are specifically interested in the concept of mUlAvidyA, the idea that ignorance actually exists as a positive entity to bring about adhyAsa or even as a material cause for the world, similar to the sAMkhya philosopher’s prakRRiti or pradhAna. Sri Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati (often referred to as SSS or even SSSS) dedicated his life to expounding what he perceived to be the original teaching of Shankara, undistorted by the views of later disciples. He considered that the concept of mUlAvidyA was one such later distortion and was never claimed by either Shankara or his first-level disciple, Sureshvara. The so-called orthodox views presented by many writers on Advaita often derive from the vivaraNa School and, according to SSS, these are in fact unorthodox.

The book is A4 size, spiral bound, consisting of 219 pages. It is, accordingly, quite long, and would be many more pages of an ordinary-sized book. It is divided into four main sections: Introduction to the Subject, Examination of an Unorthodox View (i.e. the views of those who claim that mUlAvidyA is a positive entity), Exposition of Our Own Doctrine (i.e. refutation of the previous view), Statement of Vedic and Other Authority (i.e. scriptural references to support ‘our doctrine’). The entire work is presented in the form of numbered paragraphs – 187 of them. Some of the Notes are relegated to an Appendix, followed by an extensive bibliography and what A. J. Alston calls a ‘Select Index of Concepts’, in which some key words (both English and Sanskrit) are given together with pointers to the paragraphs in which they are discussed. This index is Alston’s to help the reader find his way about; SSS did not provide one.

In fact, the same essential material is covered in all sections and what makes the reading particularly difficult is that the author presents his own and others’ arguments interspersed throughout so that it is not always clear whose view is being given. Fortunately, Alston often adds a comment in brackets to tell us! [Note that this was my view 10 years ago. On re-reading recently, and being far more knowledgeable about the views on the subject, this is no longer a problem.]

SSS’s acuity of mind and brilliance at providing logically reasoned arguments is quite amazing, but also requires tremendous effort on the part of the reader to follow them. Indeed, this is only made possible because the translator (note that the original material was written entirely in Sanskrit) is also brilliant. The translator is A. J. Alston, who produced the incomparable 6-volume ‘Shankara Source Book’, also published by Shanti Sadan.

[The original book was an early work of SSS, first published in 1929 with the author’s name subrahmaNya sharmA. In 1964, he revisited the ideas much more extensively in his better-known work ‘The Method of the Vedanta’ (also in excellent translation by A. J. Alston). This is an even longer work, however, and costs £95 from Amazon UK! I am only now in the process of reading it in some detail as part of my studies for Vol. 2 of ‘Confusions’. If you are really interested in the topic, the ‘Method’ might be preferable. There are chapters dealing with the treatment by the main post-Shankara authors.]

According to one commentator on this book, the central thesis is summed up accurately (and correctly) by the following (paragraph 109):

“They say that Ignorance is not superimposition. What is it then? It is a certain potency (shakti), existent and positive in form (bhAva-rUpa), which has bare Consciousness as its locus and as the object which it conceals, which is beginningless and indeterminable, and which is referred to indifferently as mAyA or avidyA or by other names, and which is subject to destruction through enlightenment in the form of realization of the identity of one’s true Self and Absolute. Superimposition is its effect, which is sometimes called ‘Ignorance’ (avidyA) because it invariably accompanies Ignorance in the true sense (i.e. accompanies root-Ignorance, the potency). This superimposition is sometimes called ‘effect-Ignorance’. And the Ignorance which is its cause is called ‘root-Ignorance’.

“This conception of theirs is shallow, contradicted by reason and experience alike and unfruitful, as we have already shown in detail (paras 16 – 64 above). And we shall be showing later that it contradicts the Veda and other sacred texts (Part 4, paras 139 – 187 below).

“Others (maNDana, vAchaspati) spoke of an Ignorance of this kind, but held that it had its locus in the individual soul, concealed the Absolute, and was (not one but) many (one for each individual soul).

“As the faults in the theory of root-Ignorance are not difficult to discern, we do not rehearse them here again in detail. They include the impossibility of a correct definition of Ignorance or of its locus, impossibility for the soul of attaining liberation, absence of any possible proof of non-duality and so on.”

This sort of description of the nature of ignorance is not at all uncommon, and is similar to the one I presented in ‘Back to the Truth’. Reading the book, I certainly found many of the arguments persuasive and my conclusion was that the very word ‘ignorance’ deludes one into thinking that there is actually something positive, when what we are really referring to is a lack of knowledge. This could be compared to speaking of ‘darkness’ as something positive, when all that it means is that there is no light to show us what is actually there. I restarted a thread along these lines at the Advaitin Egroup recently (i.e. 10 years ago!) for anyone interested in pursuing those thoughts. SSS himself does not specifically refer to ignorance as merely a language problem but he does say: “There is no real cessation of anything: it is just that the rise of knowledge is spoken of as the cessation of ignorance.”

The main point to be borne in mind is that the book is not what would normally call ‘readable’; indeed it is, at times, almost impenetrable. How about this: “This also rules out the view that even in the waking state the feeling ‘(I am bewildered), I do not know my own Self’ cannot be (an example of) knowledge of one’s absence of knowledge, claimed on the ground that there could not be absence of such knowledge, since merely to assert it would imply knowledge both of the alleged absence of knowledge of the Self and of the Self as the one to whom it belonged.”

Finally, if one actually succeeds in reading through to the end of this mammoth dissertation on root ignorance, SSS says, tongue presumably firmly in cheek: “And with that let us cut short what would otherwise be a long topic.”

But perhaps the entire 266 pages are somewhat superfluous because, to my mind, SSS sums up the clinching argument in a single, short sentence: “Ignorance cannot be real, since what is real cannot be brought to an end”!

If, then, this topic is of particular interest to you, this book is an essential read – and I cannot imagine you could have a better translation. Note that you should probably also read ‘A Contemporary Debate in Advaita Vedanta: Avidya and the Views of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati’, A thesis presented by Martha J. Doherty, May 1999. This is a refutation, or at least a criticism of the above book. It is available from Arsha Vidya Bookstore, in spiral bound form of over 300 A4 pages…

Difficult to award a star rating. I would give it 4* as a fascinating read for the very serious student. But 5* if you are interested in the topic. If you don’t fall into either of these categories, you should probably give it a miss!

[Note that, if you are interested in all of the other aspects of this topic as well (!) but would prefer a ‘readable’, rather than an academic treatment, then please wait for the second volume of my ‘Confusions in Advaita Vedanta’, which is entitled ‘Ignorance and its Removal’. Hopefully, this will be available sometime early 2024.]

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Heart of Sri Shankara

  1. The copy I have of ‘The Method of The Vedanta’ was published in 1984 by Paul Kegan and has 973 pp. This probably explains the different pagination on it – e.g. para. 109 is quite different from the one you quote.

  2. My apologies, Martin. I confused the issue by the reference in the preceding paragraph. ‘Para 109’ refers to the book under review (‘Heart of Sri Shankara’) and not to ‘The Method of the Vedanta’. I have put the previous para into italics and bracketed so hopefully will not confuse anyone else!

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