Brhadaranyaka means ‘great forest’; it is one of the longest Upanishads covering a breadth of topics, and one on which Sankara wrote the most extensive of commentaries. As a result it is easy to get lost in this forest, to pick out specific trees within it, without seeing its broad sweep and context.
In BU4.3 and 4.4, Janaka is helped by Yajnavalkya, step by step to attain liberation. At each significant step, Janaka offers Yajnavalkya a boon of a thousand cows as gratitude and to progress the teaching further; until at the final stage, when he is liberated, he offers his entire kingdom and himself.
Janaka starts his questions in BU4.3, asking what is the light for a man. Yajnavalkya takes him through a series of explanations starting with the sun and moon, and culminating with the light of the Self, which is different from that of the body and the organs. Sankara explains that this infinite entity which is identified with the intellect is the Self – but goes on to say “the self is so-called because of our failure to discriminate its association with its limiting adjunct the intellect”. In other words, the intellect is also part of the superimposition, the ignorance – contrary to Dennis’ assertion. Sankara expounds:
“The intellect, being transparent and next to the self, easily catches the reflection of the intelligence of the self. Therefore even wise men happen to identify themselves with it first; next comes the Manas, which catches the reflection of the self through the intellect; then the organs, through contact with the Manas; and lastly the body, through the organs. Thus the self successively illumines with its own intelligence the entire aggregate of body and organs.” – BU Bhasya 4.3.7
Yajnavalkya goes on to discuss the three states to make the point that the Self, as the ‘mere seer’, is equally unattached to actions in the waking state as it is in the dream state. Sankara comments that the “agency is simply due to its limiting adjuncts, the intellect, etc and is not natural to it”. Hence “this self is itself the light and distinct from the body and organs and their stimulating causes, desire and work, on account of its non-attachment”.
In the next verse, Sankara’s comments further reinforce the point that the intellect is also part of the superimposition, the ignorance:
“These relative attributes do not belong to it per se; its relative existence is only due to its limiting adjuncts, and is superimposed by ignorance; this has been stated to be the gist of the whole passage.” – BU Bhasya 4.3.18
The Upandishad, and Sankara’s bhasya, goes on to teach that the deep sleep state is the only one in which the Self is in its natural, eternal, free condition, without any superimposition of limiting adjuncts:
“In the state of profound sleep it is perfectly serene and unattached, this non- attachment being the additional feature. If we consider all these passages together, the resulting sense is that the self is by nature eternal, free, enlightened and pure. This comprehensive view has not yet been shown; hence the next paragraph. It will be stated later on that the self becomes such only in the state of profound sleep” – BU Bhasya 4.3.18
Now the Upanishad and Sankara, move on to discuss desire – and the fact that in liberation, as in deep sleep, there can arise no desire:
“Hence the nature of ignorance proves to be this, that it represents that which is infinite as finite, presents things other than the self that are non-existent, and makes the self appear as limited. Thence arises the desire for that from which he is separated; desire prompts him to action, which produces results” – BU Bhasya 4.3.20
“Now liberation in the form of identity with all, which is the result, devoid of action with its factors and results, of knowledge, and in which there is no ignorance, desire, or work, is being directly pointed out. This has already been introduced in the passage, ‘Where falling asleep it craves no desires and sees no dreams’ (para 19). That, this identity with all which has been spoken of as ‘his highest state,’ is his form – beyond desires (Aticchanda). This word is to be turned into neuter, since it qualifies the word ‘Rupa’ (form). ‘Chanda’ means desire; hence ‘Aticchanda,’ means transcending desires.” – BU Bhasya 4.3.21
The next section of his bhasya is critical – as again Sankara identifies deep sleep as being “fully embraced by, or unified with, the Supreme Self . . . being identified with all, without the least break, not knowing anything either internal or external.” He thus gives a pointer to what liberation is:
“You asked me why, in spite of its being the light that is Pure Intelligence, the self fails to know in the state of profound sleep. I have told you the reason – it is unity, as of a couple fully embracing each other. Incidentally it is implied that variety is the cause of particular consciousness ; and the cause of that variety is, as we have said, ignorance, which brings forward something other than the self. Such being the case, when the Jiva is freed from ignorance, he attains but unity with all.”
“In states other than that of profound sleep, i.e. in the waking and dream states, things are separated, as it were, from the self and are desired as such. But to one who is fast asleep, they become the self, since there is no ignorance to project the idea of difference.”
– BU Bhasya 4.3.22
“It is ignorance which separates a second entity, and that is at rest in the state of profound sleep ; hence ‘one’. This is the world of Brahman: In profound sleep the self, bereft of its limiting adjuncts, the body and organs, remains in its own supreme light of the Atman, free from all relations” – BU Bhasya 4.3.32
So ignorance for Sankara, is the superimposition of the world, the body, and the mind / intellect on Brahman (which equates to the deep sleep state).
BU4.4 continues the dialogue, starting with the process of transmigration, and makes the point that desire is at the root of transmigratory existence. Sankara states that it is through desirelessness, which he equates with knowledge, that one attains liberation:
“He to whom all objects of desire, being but the Self, are already attained, is alone free from desires, is without desires, and does not desire any more; hence he attains liberation.”
“Because he has no desires that cause the limitation of non-Brahmanhood, therefore ‘being but Brahman he is merged in Brahman’ in this very life, not after the body falls.”
“Therefore, as we have also said, the cessation of ignorance alone is commonly called liberation, like the disappearance of the snake, for instance, from the rope when the erroneous notion about its existence has been dispelled”
– BU Bhasya 4.4.6
Synthesising this, Sankara is saying that the knowledge, arising from sruti teaching “Tat Tvam Asi”, when it is fully realised will lead to utter desirelessness; and some level of desirelessness will be required to comprehend the sruti teaching in the first place. This is evident in the following:
“Liberation consisting in the identity with all, which is the thing that was sought to be explained by the example of the state of profound sleep, has been described. And the cause of liberation has been stated to be the attainment of all objects of desire through their becoming the Self. But since this state is unattainable without Self-knowledge, the cause of liberation has by implication been stated to be the knowledge of Brahman. Therefore, although desire has been said to be the root of bondage, it is ignorance that, being the opposite of what leads to liberation (knowledge), has virtually been stated to be the cause of bondage.” – BU Bhasya 4.4.7
It is in this context, that the Upanishad goes on to state:
BU 4.4.7: Regarding this there is this verse: ‘When all the desires that dwell in his heart (mind) are gone, then he, having been mortal, becomes immortal, and attains Brahman in this very body.’ Just as the lifeless slough of a snake is cast off and lies in the ant-hill, so does this body lie. Then the self becomes disembodied and immortal, (becomes) the Prajna (Supreme Self), Brahman, the Light. ‘I give you a thousand (cows), sir,’ said Janaka, Emperor of Videha.
Sankara reinforces this disembodiment, this lack of identification with the limiting adjuncts and desire for what is other, which are all the superimposition of ignorance:
“When the liberated man identified with all – who corresponds to the snake – although he resides just there like the snake, becomes disembodied, and is no more connected with the body. Because formerly he was embodied and mortal on account of his identification with the body under the influence of his desires and past work; since that has gone, he is now disembodied, and therefore immortal.” – BU Bhasya 4.4.7
Sankara then asks why is it that Janaka only offers a thousand cows, if Self-knowledge has been fully covered, and there is nothing further to be taught. He explains:
“Besides there is something more to be explained; although liberation, which is attainable through Self-knowledge, has been explained, a part of the latter, viz. the relinquishment of desires that is called renunciation, is yet to be described . . . we have already said that renunciation is not a mere eulogy on Self-knowledge.”
So immediately following is a set of difficult sentences, which Dennis has fundamentally misunderstood (asserting that renunciation has no relationship to self-knowledge) in a way that cannot make logical sense given the above paragraph. Sankara writes:
“The Emperor thinks that renunciation is not a direct cause of liberation like Self-knowledge; accordingly it can go on like a subsidiary act in a sacrifice. Even if renunciation were a means to liberation, it would not necessitate the request, ‘(Please instruct me) further about liberation itself,’ because it merely serves to mature Self-knowledge, which is the means of liberation.”
If one reads carefully the logical flow of the admittedly difficult commentary, it actually is understood as follows: Janaka doesn’t think renunciation is a cause of liberation, and even if he did, it would not require him to ask for more teaching, if it merely served to mature Self-knowledge. Sankara is actually hinting here at the importance of renunciation, which he elaborates on in the further instruction that follows (and many points elsewhere in BU).
This must be the case since BU 4.3 and 4.4 have gone to great lengths to explain that desires are at the root of transmigratory existence, and utter desirelessness, as in deep sleep or like a snake’s sloughed skin, is the state of liberation.
One cannot take a quote out of its context – which unfortunately Dennis has a predilection for doing!
The further instruction from Yajnavalkya very much reinforces this relinquishment of desires:
BU4.4.12: If a man knows the Self as ‘ I am this,’ then desiring what and for whose sake will he suffer in the wake of the body?
“Since he as the Self has nothing to wish for, and there is none other than himself for whose sake he may wish it, he being the Self of all, therefore desiring what and for whose sake will he suffer in the wake of the body – deviate from his nature, or become miserable, following the misery created by his limiting adjunct, the body, i.e. imbibe the afflictions of the body? For this is possible for the man who does not see the Self and consequently desires things other than It. He struggles desiring something for himself, something else for his son, a third thing for his wife, and so on, goes the round of births and deaths, and is diseased when his body is diseased. But all this is impossible for the man who sees everything as the Self.” – BU Bhasya 4.4.12
The Upanishad then goes on to say that it is through the mind alone that IT is to be realised. Sankara explains:
“Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, that identity with one’s own Self which is natural, becomes isolated; this is expressed by the statement that the Self is known. In Itself It is unknowable – not comprehended through any means.” – BU Bhasya 4.4.20
In other words sruti teaches you to stop identification with other things, and when that is gone, there is liberation and desirelessness. Sruti gives knowledge in the sense of pointing out what you are not; you need to assimilate this, constantly apply neti neti, “attain intuitive knowledge” the Upanishad says, such that it naturally manifests as desirelessness, disembodiedness like the sloughing of the skin of a snake.
The Upanishad then culminates in an injunction to renunciation – on which Sankara comments:
“The attainment of the world of the Self is but living in one’s own Self after the cessation of ignorance. Therefore, should a person desire that world of the Self, for him the chief and direct means of that would be the withdrawal from all activities . . . for one who has known about Brahman and desires to realise the world of the Self, the monastic life consisting in the cessation of all desires is undoubtedly enjoined . . . Therefore, desiring the world of the Self monks renounce their homes, i.e. should renounce. Thus it is an injunction.” – BU Bhasya 4.4.22
It is only after this point that Janaka gives Yajnavalkya his empire and himself. He renounces!
These two chapters of Brhadaranyaka Upanishad encapsulate all aspects of advaita adroitly – everything that is not there in deep sleep (which is Brahman) is a superimposition of ignorance, and desire perpetuates this. Liberation thus entails gaining this understanding of neti, neti from sruti and making it intuitive, actualising it – the sign of which will be utter desirelessness. But the Upanishad and Sankara’s commentary needs to be read in its entirety and carefully for its logical coherence, to ensure that one has properly understood it and to avoid confusion.
As Suresvara says in one of his comments on this chapter:
“Before the rise of knowledge of Atman, renunciation is a means to knowledge, and in the case of one in whom the knowledge of the Atman has arisen, only knowledge is that means to renunciation.”