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.
I think it is worth recaping the discussion to date. Dennis made two critical assertions:
(1) ”Ignorance is not the cause of the world; it is the reason that we fail to realize that the world is Brahman.”
As part of this discussion Dennis also disagreed that Sankara ‘approximated’ deep sleep to jnana.
(2) ”we superimpose ‘things’ upon the non-dual reality. That is adhyAsa. But that is not the ‘cause’ of the world.”
Sri Abhinava Vidyatheertha was the 35th Sankaracharya of Sringeri, regarded as a jivanmukta, living in the 20th Century. The following are extracts from “Exalting Elucidations”
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”
As Gaudapada’s Mandukyakarika 3.39 and 3.40 has been up for much discussion, I thought it worthwhile investigating further. Below are extracts from Swami Gambhirananda’s translation:
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.
Renunciation / samnyAsa – enjoined on the aspirant and inevitable for the jnani
The inevitable conclusion of the foregoing considerations, is that renunciation is a prerequisite for jnana. In a sense, it is preparatory modelling of how a jnani-jivanmukta is: for how one thinks, affects how one acts; and how one acts, affects how one thinks.
With regard to the seekers of Liberation, renunciation of all actions has been prescribed as an accessory of Knowledge by all the Upanishads, History, Puranas and Yoga scriptures.
– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 3 introduction
The purport is that It is not gained through knowledge unassociated with monasticism (samnyAsa).
– Mundaka Up Bhasya, 3.2.4
The purpose of this article is to explore the evidence – and rationale – for renunciation in Advaita, as exemplified in Sankara’s own words. I have focused on sharing a plethora of extracts, that make the argument for themselves. The quotes are primarily drawn from Swami Gambhirananda’s translations of Sankara’s commentaries on various scriptures – unless otherwise stated. With thanks to Ramesam for reading and correcting an earlier draft; and to Dennis for prompting me to research this topic and synthesise my findings.