Book Review: Vivekachudamani – Swami Dayananda

Another review from 10+ years ago at Advaita Academy. I have amended this to bring it up to date.

Vivekachudamani (vivekachUDAmaNi), Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Gangadadharesvar Trust, 1997, No ISBN. (312 pages), $12 from Arsha Vidya Bookstore, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Institute of Vedanta & Sanskrit, P.O. Box 1059, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, 18353, USA Tel: 570.992.2339 (http://books.arshavidya.org/) The book is in English. Verses are given in Devanagari, followed by transliteration and then word by word translation. Direct Devanagari quotations from other sources are provided in footnotes.

This is unquestionably one of the clearest books on advaita that I have ever read. Many of the usual problems that beset seekers are raised here and addressed using crystal clear logic to satisfy the most argumentative mind. As the title indicates, it is not a verse by verse commentary of the vivekachUDAmaNi. The contents are divided into topics, each of which utilizes one or more of the verses to provide an explanation. Nevertheless, the verses which are used occur in the same sequence as they do in the full presentation, so that it is possible to find out quickly whether or not a particular verse has been commented upon.

The scripture itself is a prakaraNa grantha usually attributed to Shankara. In fact, the scholars who study such things seem to be generally agreed that Shankara himself was probably not the author. This, of course, does not matter because the text is one of the most important for all seekers, ranking alongside the Bhagavad-Gita and the major Upanishads. Its subject, after all, is mokSha – what it is and how to get it!

Unfortunately, this book could not really be recommended to the beginner. Some of the topics are quite complex and there is also a lot of Sanskrit! Each verse is represented in full in Devanagari, followed by transliteration and an extensive word by word translation. Sanskrit terms (in transliterated form with diacritical marks) are used throughout. For all but the most common words, the English meaning is given whenever a term is introduced but, if you miss it, you will find yourself looking back through the text to find out when it first occurred.

 It almost seems to be written for the person who thinks that he understands everything already! If you’re in this category, you may find some of your misunderstandings being corrected. Accordingly, I would recommend it to the medium to advanced student.

This is not to say, however, that the book is in any way difficult to read – quite the opposite. As with all of Swami Dayananda’s books, it is readable and entertaining, as well as enlightening.

Some of the topics which are covered are: the equivalence of self-knowledge and enlightenment; qualifications of the student; the guru; the not-self; mAyA; the kosha-s; the Atman; bondage and ignorance; happiness; nature of the Self; unfoldment of satyam j~nAnam anantam brahma; brahman as the material cause of the world; detailed analysis of tat tvam asi; nature of the jIvanmukta.

In particular, Swami Dayananda uses the verses as a ‘launching pad’ to explain key points that often cause confusion with seekers. (This, of course, is the essence of sampradAya teaching.) For example, the fact that the seeker has to convert his desire for enlightenment (mumukShutva) into a desire specifically to obtain Self-knowledge (jij~nAsA) if he or she is to attain Self-realization; you can only determine the ‘worthiness’ of a guru through the effectiveness of their teaching;  why the scriptures are necessary and produce results; why spiritual practice is needed (why you need to be an adhikArI); why ‘doing’ anything will not itself bring enlightenment; why ‘faith’ is necessary and what it really means; meaning of Ananda; and so on.

Even some of the most difficult questions are addressed. For example, one of the most famous ‘unanswerable’ questions in philosophy is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Here is what Swami Dayananda says:

“The jIva is asking the questions, ‘how come this world is created?’, ‘why is it created?’, ‘if I am not created, how come I am here?’ To all these questions there are obliging answers – ‘you have come here because of your karma. Since you are born you do karma and because there is karma you are born again.’ In this, there is no ‘what is first and what is second’. It has its basis in avidyA. The pramAta, the jIva itself, is a product of avidyA.

“Now one may ask, ‘why should there be avidyA?’ The very question implies, there is avidyA. But the question is, ‘do you want to perpetuate this avidyA or do you want to get rid of it?’ Even when one is told ‘you are brahman‘, one says, ‘I understand this,’ but immediately asks a question, ‘If I am brahman, how come I have become a jIva?’ You are brahman. The question, ‘if I am brahman‘ does not arise. Since you are brahman you cannot become jIva. But still the question remains. So you oblige and give an answer, ‘jIva is due to avidyA. All these questions such as, ‘who plants this avidyA?’, ‘When did avidyA begin?’ have no basis because the vastu is brahman which is the svarUpa of the jIva. That is the thing to be understood.”

The vivekachUDAmaNi is probably one of the most popular of the prakaraNa grantha-s and I have nine other versions in my library. Most of these are relatively short and some simply translate the verses rather than provide extensive commentary. ‘Shankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination’ translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood is an excellent book for beginners but is commentary only, i.e. no verses or translation at all. At the opposite extreme is ‘The Message of vivekachUDAmaNi: An Exposition of vivekachUDAmaNi in the light of modern thought to modern needs’ by Swami Ranganathananda is a significant volume of over 600 pages containing much commentary, both in general and on the individual verses.

‘The Crest Jewel of Wisdom: vivekachUDAmaNi’ with the commentary by Hari Prasad Shastra is half the size with a short commentary on many of the verses, whihc are given in transliterated form. The other, reccomendable version is that by John Grimes, who died eralier this year. This also contains extensive references to related material from prasthANa traya and Shankara.

But if you want to be sure of the correct interpretation according to the sampradAya teaching, are happy to cover only 108 of the 580 verses, and don’t mind the Sanskrit, then this version must be the best.

* Note that it has now changed its title to ‘Vivekacūḍāmaṇi: Selected Verses’ and it may be purchased in Kindle format from Amazon –
Buy from Amazon US
Buy from Amazon UK

A reader also recommends the version by by Śri Candraśekhara Bhārati (former Shankaracharya of Śāradā Pīṭha, Śṛṅgeri). This is a 546 page work with Sanskrit, Transliteration and Detailed Commentary. It is expensive from Amazon; a bit less from https://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/vivekacudamani-of-sri-samkara-bhagavatpada-sanskrit-text-transliteration-and-detailed-commentary-idk697/.

I have to issue a general warning about this work. Some of the material appears to diverge from Shankara’s gnerally accepted teaching. And, more worrying, some translations diverge from the traditional; some even to the extent of mistranslating the Sanskrit, as those who have read ‘Confusions Vol. 1’ will be aware. Accordingly, while the work is highly recommended, one does have to be wary!

The highest recommendation of all has to go to the 160+ hours of talks by Swami Paramarthananda! These can also be read in transcript form at https://arshaavinash.in/index.php/books-by-swami-paramarthananda/#.

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