Desirelessness and Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta – part 1 of 2

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.

The goal of advaita is jnana, knowledge, of ‘That thou art’

The goal of Advaita is to remove our fundamental ignorance: that what ‘I’ am is a body-mind that is finite and separate from the rest of the world, and which consequently desires, struggles and suffers in order to make its way in the world, in order to ‘self-actualise’ in Maslow’s hierarchy.

Advaitins, following Sankara, have consistently said that only Knowledge, not action, can remove ignorance.  Sankara wrote that the only means to this Knowledge is through the scriptures taught by a jnani-jivanmukta.  But the nature of the teaching requires pursuing a degree of introspection, discrimination between Self and not-Self (‘viveka’ to untangle the confusion), detachment from not-Self (‘vairagya’), and steady abidance in the remembrance of the Self, so as to be aware of when the confusion inadvertently arises again.

And before an aspirant is eligible to hear the teachings, s/he is supposed to have pursued sadhana catustaya comprising this viveka and vairagya, and six-fold behavioural traits, five of which are about turning the mind away from the world and its distractions.  This sadhana therefore, is essentially about cultivating a degree of detachment and desirelessness.

A man should carry out the best forms of physical and mental austerity if he wishes to purify his mind, the highest goal.  The mind and senses should be kept focused and under control. The body should be exposed to the rigours of the climate.

– Upadesa Sahasri, 17.23 (Alton)

In addition, such a seeker should strive to be a karma yogin – to pursue his prescribed action in life, without concern for the fruits of those actions – and ultimately to act without personal desire.

Neti, neti is hence the ultimate inquiry tool – and its corollary is utter detachment / desirelessness.  Naturally then, the inevitable physical manifestation of this would be renunciation (samnyAsa).  This is why across all the scriptures, Sankara continually emphasises samnyAsa, both as a pre-requisite for the sincere seeker and as an inevitable way of life for the jnani.  To dismiss sannyasa as a cultural phenomenon of those times is to miss the logic behind Sankara’s repeated exhortation.


‘The knower of Brahman becomes Brahman’

It is interesting to note that today, most traditional and neo-advaita teachers hardly mention the importance of desirelessness (let alone renunciation).  They have judged, probably correctly, that the market of seekers is happier to gain some ‘spiritual’ knowledge to counter the miseries and meaninglessness of our lives, but really wish to continue as is, rather than anticipate any fundamental change in how life is lived.  However, the moksha of Advaita implies, necessitates even, a transformation: a loss of the ‘particular consciousness’ of the individual.

Since ignorance is absolutely destroyed by the realisation of Brahman, how can the knower of Brahman, who is established in his nature as Pure Intelligence, possibly have any such particular consciousness

– Brhadaranyka Up Bhasya 2.4.12

O Gautama, as pure water poured on pure water becomes verily the same, so also does become the Self of the man of Knowledge who is given to deliberation (on the Self)

– Katha Up 2.1.15

When the five senses of knowledge come to rest together with the mind, and the intellect, too, does not function, that state they call the highest.

– Katha Up 2.3.10

Therefore it is understood that the absolute cessation of the worldly existence follows from this Knowledge which has for its content Brahman that is the Self of all.

– Taittiriya Up Bhasya 2.1 introduction


Utter desirelessness is the key

It is hard to argue with the proposition that non-duality, or ‘becoming Brahman’ means that there can be no second thing to desire.  Consequently, the preparation of sadhana catustaya and karma yoga are there to attenuate desires, which in turn facilitates understanding of the advaitic message, which in turn reinforces desirelessness.

The self is identified with desire alone. Its identification with other things, although it may be present, does not produce any results; hence the text emphatically says, ‘Identified with desire alone.’ Being identified with desire, what it desires, it resolves. That desire manifests itself as the slightest longing for a particular object, and, if unchecked, takes a more definite shape and becomes resolve. Resolve is determination, which is followed by action. What it resolves as a result of the desire, it works out by doing the kind of work that is calculated to procure the objects resolved upon. And what it works out, it attains, i.e. its results. Therefore desire is the only cause of its identification with everything.

– Brhadaranyka Up Bhasya 4.4.5

Having one’s eye, i.e. the group of organs beginning with the ear, turned away from all sense-objects. Such a one, who is purified thus, sees the indwelling Self. For it is not possible for the same person to be engaged in the thought of sense-objects and to have the vision of the Self as well.

– Katha Up Bhasya 2.1.1

When all desires clinging to one’s heart fall off, then a mortal becomes immortal, (and) one attains Brahman here. This much alone is the instruction (of all the Upanisads).

– Katha Up 2.3.14-15

Pretya, desisting; asmat lokat, from this world of empirical dealings involving ideas of “I and mine” with regard to sons, friends, wives, and relatives; i.e. having renounced all desires; (they) bhavanti, become; amrtha, immortal, immune from death. This is in accordance with the Vedic texts: “Not by work, not by progeny, not by wealth, but by renunciation some (rare ones) attained immortality” (Kaivalya Upanisad 1.2) . . . renunciation of desires being implied in the expression atimucya (giving up) itself, pretya means separating from this body, dying.

– Kena Up Bhasya 1.5

The attainment of Liberation is only for the sannyasin, the man of enlightenment, who has renounced all desires and is a man of steady wisdom; but not for him who has not renounced and is desirous of the objects (of the senses).

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 2.69

(That person) having discarded egotism, force, pride, desire, anger, aversion and superfluous possessions (there arises the possibility of acceptance of gifts either for the maintenance of the body or for righteous duties; discarding them as well) becomes a mendicant of the paramhamsa parivrajaka class, devoid of the idea of ‘me’ and ‘mine’; and for the very same reason, serene, withdrawn.  The monk who is effortless and steadfast in Knowledge becomes fit for becoming Brahman (brahma-bhuyaya).

– Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 18.53


Action incompatible with Knowledge

When Sankara wrote that realisation can come through Knowledge alone and not through any action, many overlook the fact that he also said that any action in the world was incompatible with Knowledge.  For what purpose would a jnani act, given his Knowledge of ‘not two’ and his consequential desirelessness? After all, action sprouts from desire and desire has its source only in ignorance (avidyA).

For a man does not engage in action for the sake of obtaining that to which he has become indifferent.  Having become indifferent to the three worlds, for the sake of what could the one desirous of liberation strive?

– Upadesa Sahasri, 18.231 (Alton)

Action is inconceivable in one who has the knowledge of Brahman as his Self as comprised in the realisation, “I am the supreme Brahman in which all desires are fulfilled and which is above all the worldly shortcomings”, and who has no idea of results because he feels no need for anything to be got for himself from actions done or to be done (by him).

– Aitreya Up Bhasya, 1.1

Now is commenced the knowledge of Brahman with a view to eschewing the causes that lead to the performance of karma.  Desire must be the source of karma, since it stimulates action; for no impulsion to activity is possible in the case of those whose desires have been fulfilled, they being then established in their own Self as a result of the absence of desire.

– Taittiriya Up Bhasya, Introduction

For a man who, in the absence of the perception of the non-Self, sees the unity of the Self, there arises no desire, since objects (of desire) do not exist. Besides, since desire cannot rise with regard to oneself, owing to non-difference, there ensues liberation consisting in existence in one’s own Self.  From this also follows, that Knowledge and karma are contradictory.

– Taittiriya Up Bhasya, 1.11.4

This [Mundaka] Upanisad shows that though people in all stages of life have a right to Knowledge as such, still the Knowledge of Brahman, founded on samnyAsa only and not as associated with karma, is the means for emancipation. And this follows from the opposition between knowledge and karma . . . As for the indirect indications (suggesting that knowledge and karma can co-exist), to wit, the fact that among the householders are found some with whom started the traditional lines of the knowers of Brahman that cannot override the established rule.  For when the co-existence of light and darkness cannot be brought about even by a hundred injunctions, much less can it be done so by mere indications.

– Mundaka Up Bhasya, 1.1 Introduction


Only renunciates can properly understand the teaching

This follows from the previous consideration that any action, being initiated by desire, must be incompatible with Knowledge.  In order to properly understand neti neti, this speaks of the necessary attenuation of the mind; and the sadhaka’s disgust with, and turning away from, the things of the world.

In order to perform the discrimination necessary to find the meaning of the word ‘thou’, there must be renunciation of all action.  This is the right means, for the Veda teaches ‘peaceful, self-controlled’.

– Upadesa Sahasri, 18.222 (Alton)

[This philosophical system] can be understood only by those highly worshipped persons who have renounced all longings for external things, who seek no other refuge – who are ParamaHamsa, wandering mendicants, who have reached the final life-stage and are totally devoted to the Philosophy of the Vedanta.  And even to this day, it is only these persons – and none others – who carry on this teaching.

– Chandogya Up Bhasya, 8.12.2 (Ganganath Jha) 

When what has been said in this book has been rightly comprehended, nothing further remains to be known. But only renunciates from all action will rightly understand itDesireless, peaceful ascetics who have renounced all activities and whose minds are focused within will understand the teachings in the spirit in which they are meant.­

– Suresvara’s Naiskamya Siddhi, 4.72-73 (Alton)


[To be continued]

38 thoughts on “Desirelessness and Renunciation in Advaita Vedanta – part 1 of 2

  1. Very interesting article, but ideally wouldn’t renunciation be a side effect of desirelesness? Because the effort to renounce may actually amplify the sense of agency and defeat the purpose…I mean, if the attitude is not possessive then would one renounce deliberately? Here is K’s take:
    “It is good to be simple outwardly, for it does give a certain freedom, it is a gesture of integrity; but why is it that we invariably begin with the outer and not with the inner simplicity. Is it to convince ourselves and others of our intention? Why do we have to convince ourselves? Freedom from things needs intelligence, not gestures and convictions; and intelligence is not personal. If one is aware of all the implications of many possessions, that very awareness liberates, and then there is no need for dramatic assertions and gestures.”

  2. Forgot to add that my main discomfort is with this:
    “This is why across all the scriptures, Sankara continually emphasises samnyAsa, both as a pre-requisite for the sincere seeker and as an inevitable way of life for the jnani. To dismiss sannyasa as a cultural phenomenon of those times is to miss the logic behind Sankara’s repeated exhortation.”
    Inevitable way of life for the jnani – maybe; prerequisite for the sincere seeker – sorry, no.

    Fully agree with your comments on Neo Advaitin “teachers”, etc.

  3. Great post, Venkat!

    I confess to being fairly ignorant about this topic at present (although it is one of the topics I will cover in the ‘Confusions’ book). I am aware that Brihadaranyaka has much about it. I guess the Ashrama divisions were pretty strict in those days. And I have always held the view that Shankara went along with this; although I maybe assumed that he did so in order not to go against established practice.

    Logically, it seems that saMnyAsa would be appropriate for a seeker, since vairAgya is a prerequisite. But it also seems redundant for a j~nAnI. Shankara is clear that only knowledge is opposed to ignorance; and Self-knowledge = mokSha. So, being liberated by the knowledge, future action must be irrelevant.

    Accordingly, my tendency would be to interpret the renunciation post-enlightenment as meaning simply that a j~nAnI now knows that he does not act and that desires are redundant; so that a saMnyAsa-type lifestyle would be natural but certainly not in any way ‘necessary’ or ‘mandated’.

    But I will be more informed after a few weeks (and reading your posts).

    Shishya: would you please stop quoting K – he was not an Advaitin. Quotes from prasthAna traya, prakAraNa grantha-s, Shankara and pre- or post-Shankara Advaitins are fine. Ramana, Nisargadatta, Krishna Menon and Ramakrishna/Vivekananda (up to a point) are OK. Other non-dual traditions or independent teachers are not in any way authoritative and are unacceptable. Sorry!

  4. Thanks Dennis for encouraging me to write this – it has been a good exercise in sravana / manana. It seems that we are on the same page on this one!

    I agree that for a jnani, nothing can be mandated, since it can no longer be relevant. However, as you note, the logic for a jnani must be:
    the absence of desire -> no need of action -> ‘natural’, non-volitional saMnyAsa

    Shishya, thanks for your comments! I think you are talking about non-volitional action, or in this case non-volitional renunciation; I try to address this in the second half of the article. But I agree with you, it is the desirelessness that is important; renunciation is likely to be a consequence. My sense is that as one’s observation of the world and the ego becomes more acute, the turning away from the world, the desirelessness increases . . . perhaps to such a point that minimal ‘personal’ action becomes inevitable?

    You and I had a discussion previously in which we observed that Ramanamaharishi was once asked by a seeker if he should renounce; the answer was in the negative; because, the fact that he asked, meant that it was not a natural falling away.

    I would like to think that renunciation is more about the mental attitude, about non-action rather than actually giving up my home. However, if I am honest, that is actually my ego not wanting to give up its security; looking to escape from the logic of desirelessness implying renunciation. If I really had no ego, how would I live?

    As you will see from the next half of the article, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Sankara actually meant renunciation in the strict sense, of not depending on any property, attachments, literally living by what comes by chance, unplanned. He even addresses the hypothetical objection that a householder who has gained jnana need not renounce; I excluded this from the article, since it is not a ‘sound-bite’ argument, but I’ll see if I can fit it in.

    And if I look at the life of Ramanamaharishi, he exactly fulfils Sankara’s criteria of how a jnani-jivanmukta would be, would act.

    best wishes,

  5. Hi Venkat,

    Let me join our Friends to congratulate you on this excellent compilation putting together a brilliant garland of bright gems from various works of Shankara. Your post truly brings out the salient points of his teaching.

    Shishya’s usual panache for sharp observations seems to have taken a back seat, for he seems to have slipped here not once but twice – perhaps once on each foot or on both feet together?! (: (:

    Shishya asks: “wouldn’t renunciation be a side effect of desirelessness?”

    Advaita does not think so.

    Desirelessness may connote the absence of a longing, a want or wish for something that is lacking. As you must be aware, the prelim requirement for an aspirant for Non-dual wisdom is an absence of desire for things in this world and also other worlds (iha Amutra phala bhoga virAga).

    Renunciation is dropping down “effortlessly” even what is in possession, what one has – all sorts of attachments including clinging to the body, guru, shAshtra etc. Those attachments are summed up as the sense of “me-mine.” IOW, both the mithyAtmA and gauNAtmA. The later Acharyas say that this happens in two steps after the gaining of the prelim requirements (desirelessness etc. – first the acquiring of the Self-knowledge and then Its stabilization.

    You are right, Shishya, if renouncing is done with a motive, or with the expectation of a higher ‘reward,’ it will be a worthless effort.

    Next you say, (regarding what Venkata wrote about renunciation) “prerequisite for the sincere seeker – sorry, no.”

    No, Sir.
    I don’t know with what meaning you associate the word “renunciation” (samnyAsa) in this context. One can say that it has a very strict “technical” connotation in Advaita.

    Mahanarayana upanishad in its mantra at 78.12 says: न्यास इति ब्रह्मा ब्रह्मा हि परः (nyAsa iti brahmA, brahmA hi paraH). Shankara himself quotes this mantra in his BGB at 5.6 and and also in BSB at 3.4.20.

    nyAsa is surrender and with the prefix ‘sam,’ it has to be understood as perfect surrender. That itself is said to be brahman! Shankara writes at BG 5.6 that “the true renunciation consists in steady devotion to right Knowledge.”

    The Mahanarayana Upa says further at 79.13 that “The true Knowers declare that samnyAsa mentioned as the supreme means of liberation is brahman” indicative of the oneness of the means and the goal.

    One should also bear in mind that ‘samnyAsa’ referred to here is described as “paramArtha” by Shankara in his BGB commentaries.

    Regarding JK’s quote, I agree with what he says about external show. After all, BG itself makes it so clear that a baldpate or changing (the color) of the clothes is not samnyAsa. So it’s not about external exhibition. Don’t you suppose that Shankara knew it? JK may use a different jargon; Shankara may be more classical. Other than that, I see no difference in their teachings.

    One cannot dispute the privileges of the owner of a web site, but brahmajnAna (True Knowledge of the Self) cannot, IMHO, be seen with narrow bureaucratic or parochial eyes. Shankara himself said that even an opponent’s argument would be acceptable as long as it is not against the shAstra.


  6. Dennis, Venkat, Ramesam:

    Thanks for your responses, there is a lot to think about and I will reply shortly.

    It seems to a better title for the article would have been – Desirelessness, Renunciation and Surrender in Advaita Vedanta.

    Sanskrit is a glorious language indeed.

  7. Ramesam,

    I do not think I am being at all unreasonable here. The purpose of the site has always been to present the teaching of Advaita – not Zen, not Dzogchen, not Kabbalah, not any random teacher who happens to preach non-duality. This is so that a visitor can be assured that he is reading about the teaching of Advaita.

    There are lots of other sites that present the teachings of other traditions and no doubt there are ones that discuss all of these indiscriminately, perhaps using the argument that non-duality must be the same however one gets there. But that is the point. One can go by many routes, but if the paths are mixed, crossed, reversed, elongated etc. one will take a hell of a lot longer to get there!

    Of course, we can discuss differing teachings within Advaita – this is how we reach an understanding, by seeing both sides of an argument. Ideally we fall back on what was said by Shankara because he represents the epitome of Advaita. But discussion and disagreements are expected and welcomed – as long as they are within the realms of Advaita.

    Best wishes,

  8. Dear all,

    In BG18.2, Lord Krishna defines sannyasa to be the ‘giving up of actions done with a desire for reward’. Sankara in his commentary makes clear that this sannyasa is meant in a secondary sense, for the seeker. But for the monks steadfast in – devoted to – Knowledge, sannyasa in the primary sense is the renunciation of all actions. Because, when there is no second thing to desire, there is nothing that can stir action.

  9. Hi Venkat,

    I have mentioned before about the problems of Sanskrit translations by commentators of prasthAna traya and Shankara bhAShya-s, and I include in my ‘Confusions’ book some particularly clear examples of misleading ones. I am not suggesting that this is happening in some of the ones that you quote here but it is difficult to check when my Sanskrit knowledge is so poor.

    The ones that I am having problems with are the following:

    1) “A man should carry out the best forms of physical and mental austerity if he wishes to purify his mind, the highest goal. The mind and senses should be kept focused and under control. The body should be exposed to the rigours of the climate. – Upadesa Sahasri, 17.23 (Alton)”

    I am dubious about the last sentence here. Are you able to give the word-by-word breakdown and translation?

    2) “Therefore it is understood that the absolute cessation of the worldly existence follows from this Knowledge which has for its content Brahman that is the Self of all. – Taittiriya Up Bhasya 2.1 introduction”

    This is an interesting one. You probably know that I have said clearly that the world does NOT disappear on enlightenment (nor does the body drop) so could you tell me please exactly where this appears, please. I haven’t been able to find from the above reference.

    3) “The attainment of Liberation is only for the sannyasin, the man of enlightenment, who has renounced all desires and is a man of steady wisdom; but not for him who has not renounced and is desirous of the objects (of the senses). – Bhagavad Gita Bhasya, 2.69”

    I have found this quotation in Gambhirananda’s translation. But I cannot track it down in the detail. Shankara’s commentary on this shloka is much more extensive, including a long argument against samuchchaya vAda. Gambhirananda has obviously just selected an odd bit. The key topic is all about the belief of the aj~nAnI in the vyAvahArika appearance versus the j~nAnI’s realization of the pAramArthika reality. The quotation you give does not seem particularly relevant to that discussion.

    4) “This [Mundaka] Upanishad shows that though people in all stages of life have a right to Knowledge as such, still the Knowledge of Brahman, founded on saMnyAsa only and not as associated with karma, is the means for emancipation. And this follows from the opposition between knowledge and karma… – Mundaka Up Bhasya, 1.1 Introduction”

    Shankara’s intention in the introduction is to deny the possibility of j~nAna-karma samuchchaya. As such, he is talking about the seeker needing to have the attitude that action is of no value or interest regarding the search for Self-knowledge. Thus, I think that reference to saMnyAsa here means that only someone who appreciates this fact is going to get anywhere. If you continue to pursue worldly desires at the same time, you will not succeed. I.e. it does not mean that one literally has to strip and go begging on the streets.

    5) “[This philosophical system] can be understood only by those highly worshipped persons who have renounced all longings for external things, who seek no other refuge – who are ParamaHamsa, wandering mendicants, who have reached the final life-stage and are totally devoted to the Philosophy of the Vedanta. And even to this day, it is only these persons – and none others – who carry on this teaching. – Chandogya Up Bhasya, 8.12.2 (Ganganath Jha)”

    Is this the correct reference? The versions I have do not give any such reading. It also looks as though this is his own comment rather than Shankara’s (“even to this day”), in which case it is not really of value. I have not heard of this person but Wikipedia introduces him: “Sir Gaṅgānāth Jhā (25 December 1872 – 9 November 1941) was a scholar of Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. He was also a paṇḍit of Nyāya-Śāstra.” I.e. he was not even an Advaitin scholar, let alone belonging to a sampradAya.

    Best wishes,

  10. 2) “Therefore it is understood that the absolute cessation of the worldly existence follows from this Knowledge which has for its content Brahman that is the Self of all. – Taittiriya Up Bhasya 2.1 introduction”

    This is an interesting one. You probably know that I have said clearly that the world does NOT disappear on enlightenment (nor does the body drop) so could you tell me please exactly where this appears, please. I haven’t been able to find from the above reference.

    Dennis, if I may this quote is from section one of the brahmananda valli, immediately following the shanti patha. Shankara explains that the invocation of peace is to remove obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge of atman. Because it is impossible to completely destroy the root of worldly existence, i.e. samsara, through meditation or the knowledge of the conditioned atman, we strive to realize the atman freed from limitations created by limiting adjuncts. This knowledge is useful, he says, for destroying ignorance and consequently effecting the complete cessation of samsara. Shankara cites the passage “The wise or enlightened man fears nothing” and says that it is inconsistent that one should be fearless if there remains in him the seed of worldly existence. We see from this, says Shankara, that there is a complete cessation of worldly existence from the acquisition of the knowledge of brahman, the atman of all.

  11. Dear Dennis,

    You made very interesting comments and observations on some of the quotes given by Venkat.

    Your arguments were quite forceful and that impelled me to do a little ‘research’ on my part. While we may await Venkat’s own response, here is what I found.

    I am offering my comments seriatim in the reverse order to your five questions.

    5. The chAndogya quote:
    You are right. The reference number is a typo. It should be 8.12.1 and not 8.12.2.

    And Dr. Jha’s translation is very faithful to Shankara’s commentary. The quoted lines occur at the very end of his commentary to 8.12.1

    Yes, it was Shankara himself who said “even to this day”!! 🙂 (:

    His words were अद्यापि which breaks into adya + api meaning today + even!

    4. The muNDaka quote:
    One may like to stretch Shankara’s quoted words at the Intro to 1.1 muNDaka as against “jnAnakarma samuccaya,” but the context does not appear to be so.

    When Shankara wants to talk about it, he uses the phrase “jnAnakarma samuccaya,” as for example at his bhASya at 3.1.4 muNDaka, BSB 3.1.7, and also in BGB.

    Shankara’s intention at the Intro to 1.1 seems to me to be about emphasizing the “renouncement” aspect only. We may bear in mind that his words here come after he mentioned about the “apara vidyA-s” with their mandatory injunctions etc. So he stresses the importance of desirelessness and renunciation at this point, IMHO.

    3. The BGB 2.69 quote:
    I also tend to agree with you to some extent that Swami Gambhirananda appears to promote “monkhood” with his rather longish explanation enclosed in square brackets about who constitutes a samnyAsin. I do not see this part in Shankara’s commentary.

    I do not also see here that Shankara was resorting to the theme of “jnAnakarma samuccaya.”
    Shankara just states at the end of 2.29, as an Intro to 2.70, “The Lord proceeds to teach, by an illustration, that that devotee only who is wise, who has abandoned desires, and whose wisdom is steady, can attain moksha, but not he who, without renouncing, cherishes a desire for objects of pleasure.” (Translation by A.M. Sastri). Therefore, we may not read more into it at this stage of the commentary beyond stressing the importance of desirelessness and renunciation.

    2. The taittIriya quote:

    The point about “disappearance of the world” on the attainment of Self-Knowledge, is a very interesting and difficult-to-intuit concept. We need to iron it out separately, IMHO.

    1. The upadesha sAhashrI quote:

    I have to confess the inadequacy of my knowledge. I am also quite intrigued about the sentence by Alton when he says: “The body should be exposed to the rigours of the climate.”

    I checked the translation of Swami Jagadananda (1989) of RK Group. He writes, “The controlling of the mind and emancipation of the body in different seasons should be undertaken.”

    As we can see he too uses the word “seasons.” I did not find any word indicative of climate or seasons in the original. Swami J adds a footnote to say that the words “best” and “austerities” appearing in the first line of his translation allude to BG 17.14 to 16. The only word occurring in the original that could be interpreted by the learned teachers in terms of different conditions is the last one in the second line of the verse – viSheShaNam in the phrase tat tat deha viSheShaNam. I do not know the reason to give such a meaning to the word viSheShaNam which means distinguishing, particularizing, differencing.

    Ananda Giri too did not say any such thing in his gloss on this verse 17.23 of upadeshe sAhashrI.

    All this goes to prove, once again, what you, Dennis, have often been expressing that one cannot study Advaita Vedanta from mere books without the help from a teacher who understands the scriptures.


  12. Thanks for that, Rick. Found it now – and the translation given by Venkat does not match the Sanskrit as far as I can tell. Here is the word by word (approximately!) translation:

    “Therefore (ataH) for the purpose of totally (asheShataH) eliminating ignorance (aj~nAnasya nivRRittartham), the seed of saMsAra that causes all the calamities, without exception (asheSha-upadravya-bIjasya) by the knowledge of nirguNabrahma (AtmA-darshanArtham), which is freed (vidhUta) from all attributes belonging to the various upAdhi-s (sarva-upAdhi-visheSha – which are sharIra trayam and prapa~ncha trayam); this chapter is going to be started (idam Arbhayate) with the words ‘the knower of Brahman attains the infinite’ (brahmavidApnoti param) etc.

    “And the benefit (prayojanam cha) of nirguNabrahma j~nAnam (asyAH brahma-vidyAyaH) lies in removing ignorance as well as erroneous understanding (avidyA-nivRRitiH). By the removal of it (tathA cha) there is complete (AtyantikaH) freedom from saMsAra (saMsAra abhAvaH – as avidyA is the seed of saMsAra and where vidyA is avidyA cannot exist).”

    He then quotes the Upanishad ref. as you point out and says:

    “And if ignorance continues (saMsAra-nimitte cha sat) the gain of freedom from fear (abhayaM pratShThAm vindate iti) would become untenable (anupapannam)” etc. as you say. But his conclusion to all this is:

    “From this (ataH) it is clearly understood (iti avagamyate) that by the knowledge of this nirguNabrahman alone (asmAd vij~nAnAt), which is the AtmA of all the jIva-s (sarvAtma-brahma-viShayAd) can the complete removal of saMsAra for good take place (AtyantikaH saMsAra-abhAvaH).”

    I don’t see anything about the world coming to an end!

    Best wishes,

    • Dennis,

      Re: “I don’t see anything about the world coming to an end!”

      You yourself just said it!

      AtyantikaH saMsAra-abhAvaH

      AtyantikaH = entire; infinite; absolute
      saMsAra = (of) world
      abhAvaH = non-existence

      • Since when does saMsara mean ‘of world’? I know that Monier-Williams gives this as a possible translation but then this sort of divergence occurs with practically every Sanskrit word. Every teacher/book/translation/commentary I have ever read means ‘cycle of birth and death’ when they use the word. There clearly cannot be rebirth if there is no world into which to be born!

  13. Dear Dennis, Rick and Ramesam

    Thanks for your erudite comments. I’m not sure I can add much to it.

    (3) On Bhagavad Gita 2.69, I consulted the translation of A G Krishna Warrier, which reads, as a transition to 2.70:
    “In order to elucidate with the help of a simile the idea that emancipation can be won only by the ascetic sage of stable wisdom who has renounced all desires, and not by a non-renouncer pursuing objects of desire, the Lord affirms . . .”

    (4) On Mudaka Up Bhasya 1.1 intro, Swami Nikhilanda translates as:
    “Although people belonging to all stages of life are equally entitled to the Knowledge of Brahman, yet the knowledge culminating in complete renunciation (sannyasa) becomes the means to liberation (moksha) and not the knowledge combined with action. This is shown by such passages as “Who live in the forest on alms” (1.2.2) and “Having purified their minds through the practice of sannyasa” (3.2.6). The Knowledge of Brahman is incompatible with action. One realising the identify of Atman and Brahman cannot perform action even in a dream.”

    I would suggest that when Sankara said the Liberation could not be attained by action combined with Knowledge, he meant it not only in the sense of jnAna-karma samuchchaya, but also in the sense that ANY action is incompatible with Knowledge – as set out in the above article.

    (5) On Chandogya Up Bhasya 8.12.1 (sorry for wrong reference!), Sw Nikhilananda translates:
    “Therefore a qualified student can obtain the true Knowledge of the Self only from those paramahamsas who have renounced all desires for the external world and embraced the monastic life, who are engaged only in the pursuit of Vedanta, and who follow the instructions of Prajapati as laid down in the four chapters just explained. Even today, only such revered teachers can rightly explain the doctrine of the Self”.

    “One cannot study Advaita Vedanta from mere books without the help from a teacher who understands the scriptures” –> point taken 🙂

  14. 2. The taittIriya quote:

    The point about “disappearance of the world” on the attainment of Self-Knowledge, is a very interesting and difficult-to-intuit concept. We need to iron it out separately, IMHO.

    The spirit of Shankara’s approach expressed in his writings suggests to me that non-duality does not mean the actual disappearance of distinctions and multiplicity, but the realization of their ultimate unreality, owing to the realization of Brahman which is everything or besides which nothing exists. A brahmajnani is aware of the universe and other selves, but not as different from the Self or Brahman. He realizes their oneness with the Self. Similarly, his awareness of himself is not destroyed; only the sense of individuality or the wrong knowledge that he is not one with Reality is given the heave-ho. To experience an all-inclusive and non-dual reality is to see it everywhere, to realize that things which appear to be different from one another and also from Brahman, are not really different from Brahman and are of one nature. This includes, of course, one’s own identity with Reality.

    Before or after realization, Reality remains what it is. The brahmajnani does see multiplicity, but he knows it is not real; that Brahman alone is. With this firmness of vision comes a complete change of outlook. The vision of differences and distinctions is discarded and a vision of oneness is attained. It’s the realization of an eternal and objective truth by being it.

  15. Hi Rick Riekert,

    Nice to see your reaction to my comment.

    I am afraid things are not that simple as you seem to indicate/express.

    What exactly the perception would be like when you say that a liberated individual “does see multiplicity, but he knows it is not real; that Brahman alone is.” If s/he sees “multiple things,” obviously “difference” in the percepts is noticed. Difference is an indication of “duality” and not “advitIyam.” Gaudapada says very clearly that appearance of duality even for a fractional time is not liberation.

    Again when you say that “With this firmness of vision comes a complete change of outlook,” what exactly does the new outlook will be like?
    Almost all the participants here at the AV site know pretty well that the worldly percepts are unreal. Do you really think that there is a change in the outlook beyond the intellectual level of Advaita?

    I was hoping to write a Blog Post on this topic.

    It seems to me that there has been a historical shift too on the concept of “jIvanmukta” — from Upanishadic times to Shankara to Vidyaranya to modern day. Perhaps from being a transitional “state” of a short duration, jIvanmukti seems to have become a “Status” or almost an “ideal” to be achieved by a seeker – I hope to map these changes.

    Just to put it briefly, do you think that the metaphor snake on the rope or the mirage represents the Advaitic Truth? If it is like snake on the rope, once it is known that it is only a rope and no snake, one does not see the snake. If it is the mirage metaphor, one continues to see the mirage even after one knows that there is no water.

    I welcome your thoughts with the scriptural quotes, if possible.


  16. Dennis: “Since when does saMsara mean ‘of world’? ”

    An interesting question!
    The Answer is simple: Ever since the Upanishads have been there!

    First the derivation:
    sam saratIti samsAra – that which flows without break is samsAra.
    jayate gacchatIti jagat – that which goes on without break is jagat.

    I hope you agree ‘jagat’ is world.
    As far as Advaita is concerned, jagat and samsAra are the same.

    I have never come across anywhere in the scriptures that differentiates samsAra and jagat.

  17. Dear Ramesam,

    I definitely agree with you that the concept of jIvanmukti has changed over the centuries. My reading so far points to the conclusion that the ‘jIvanmukti’ idea didn’t really start to acquire significance until after Shankara. It leapt into the special category of requiring ‘actions after gaining Self-knowledge’ (such as manonASha, samAdhi, and saMnyAsa) with the addition of concepts from Yoga philosophy (in Yoga VashiShTha and jIvanmuktiviveka). It then seems to have further snowballed from there. But it had already started to change before then as various successors to Shankara tried to cope with the notion of the continuance of prArabdha karma. I will highlight some aspects of this with Parts 7 and 8 of the pratibandha posts.

    Best wishes,

  18. Hi Venkat,

    I did not address your opening quotation in my earlier comment.

    “The purport is that It is not gained through knowledge unassociated with monasticism (saMnyAsa).” – Mundaka Up bhAShya, 3.2.4

    Again, I do not think this should be interpreted literally. For a start, the word ‘saMnyAsa’ itself is not used. What is used is ‘li~Nga’. vA api ali~NgAt is translated as ‘or even without renunciation’. But the shruti uses this word rather than saMnyAsa. This particular mantra is talking about the attitude one needs, in addition to knowledge, in order to ‘gain’ Brahman, viz. inner strength, commitment, discrimination. To my mind (at least), this choice of ‘li~nga’ means that one must have the ‘signs, or indicators’ of renunciation; i.e. those qualities that would also qualify one for becoming a monk, if one so desired. A casual interest in Advaita will not get you anywhere!

    Best wishes,

  19. Dennis,

    Your above comment proves once more how one can be misled if s/he studies the cryptic Upanishadic statements on one’s own without the guidance of a teacher in the tradition of Shankara!

    If you read the commentary of Shankara on the mantra 3.2.4, he writes very clearly that samnyAsa is required. He says:

    तपोऽत्र ज्ञानम् ; लिङ्गं संन्यासः ; संन्यासरहिताज्ज्ञानान्न लभ्यत इत्यर्थः ।

    tapaH atra jnAnam; lingam samnyAsaH; samnyAsa rahita ajnAnAn na labhyate iti arthaH|

    tapaH atra – the word tapaH here (means)
    jnAnam – Knowledge;
    lingam – (the word) ‘linga’ (means)
    samnyAsaH – samnyAsa;
    samnyAsa rahita – without samnyAsa
    ajnAnAn – (by) the ignorant
    na – not
    labhyate – obtained
    iti – thus
    arthaH – (is the) meaning.


  20. Hi Dennis

    I took that quote from Sankara’s bhasya, which as Ramesam noted is explaining, word by word, that Upanishad mantra.

    if you then go to 3.2.6, the Upanishad itself uses the word sannyasa. From Sw Nikhilananda’s translation:

    ‘Having well ascertained the Self, the goal of Vedantic knowledge. and having purified their minds through the practice of sannyasa (sannyasa-yogat), the seers, never relaxing their efforts, enjoy here supreme Immortality and at the time of the great end, attain complete freedom in Brahman’

    In the bhasya, Sankara says of sannyasa-yogat: ‘through the yoga consisting in giving up of all activities, which is the same as the yoga of remaining steadfast in Brahman alone’.

  21. Dear Ramesam and Venkat,

    I was referring to the Upanishad (hence my use of the word ‘shruti’ and ‘mantra’) and not to Shankara’s comment. I obviously acknowledge that Shankara himself used the word saMnyAsa.

    Thank you, Venkat, for pointing out that the word occurs in mantra 3.2.6. I do have to agree that this implies the j~nAnI has to become a saMnyAsin. I am still not convinced that this is meant literally however. Indeed, I could argue that it supports the idea of pratibandha-s. Namely that having gained Self-knowledge, if this was not preceded by completing the sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti disciplines, then the ‘mental attitude’ of a saMnyAsin is necessary in order to eliminate pratibandha-s and attain the status of jIvanmukti.

    Of course, literally becoming a saMnyAsin might achieve the same result but why would this be necessary when the j~nAnI now knows that he does not act?

    Best wishes,

    P.S. My involvement in discussions etc. is likely to be limited over the next few days. I am in the process of (attempting to) switch over to a new computer and OS.

  22. Dear Dennis and Venkat,

    May be time to recall parts of my comments re: muNDaka upanishad posted by me 3 weeks ago:

    On Feb 16, 2020:

    Before a committed seeker takes up a study of muNDaka upa, one thing should be very clearly understood. And that is the word “muNDaka” in the title of the Upanishad.

    “The muNDaka stipulates that one should be truly baldpated (shaved) to understand its teaching. In fact, it gets the name muNDaka (meaning shaven head) because of that stipulation. The shaving off the head is symbolical. It does not mean just cutting the hair. One should shave off all kinds of thoughts. One has to give up all thoughts concerning the objects of the world.

    Unless one has reached that level of “vairAgya,” its teaching does not mean much.

    On Feb 17, 2020:

    The “formal Ashram samnyAsa” with all the extraneous symbols is not implied by the muNDaka Upanishad too, IMHO.

    I can say so because the Upanishad itself mentions in its mantra 1.1.3, while narrating the Agama succession in the transmission of the message, the name of Saunaka who was said to be a mahAshAla ( = great householder ) and not a formal samnyAsi.


  23. Dear Ramesam and Dennis,

    I agree the formal sannyasa asrama is not what is meant.

    The frequency and force with which Sankara links the gaining of knowledge and renunciation together, in very simple straightforward terms, is self-evident in this set of quotes and the following article I will post. And, as I point out in the next article, mental renunciation is not what Sankara talks of.

    Dennis – in your earlier response to Ramesam, you seem to accept that Sankara did not really differentiate between a jnani and a jivanmukta, and that this was a later development. At the end of this article, the quotes show that both Sankara and Suresvara stated that only a renunciate of all action can rightly understand the teaching. The implications of this are worth considering:

    1) To gain jnana, one needs to have completely renounced attachment to the world, and therefore all activities (even if you argue mentally only!)

    2) To have renounced all action, then by inference, one essentially must have completed his/her sadhana, and be at an advanced stage. There can be nothing further to do than understanding the mahavakya.

    3) Therefore the concept of a jnani having to overcome pratibandas, through completing sadhana of detaching from the world, in order to become a jivanmukta, has to be redundant.

    • Then why do post-Shankaran teachers, especially VIdyaranya onwards, specify that one should be a saMnyAsin AFTER gaining Self-knowledge?

  24. Dear Dennis,

    Will you be able to tell us where Swami Vidyaranya said that one should become a samnyAsin after gaining Self-knowledge?

    I think he said that samnyAsa was required even to gain Self-knowledge. He introduced two categories of smanyAsins of parmahamsa variety — vividishA samnyAsa to gain Self-knowledge and vidvat samnyAsa for stabilization of the Self-knowledge. Further, he admitted that by his time itself (the 14th cent), the past rigor of preparedness through upAsana etc. anuShThAna-s among the seekers had had reduced, but he did not compromise on the requirement of the “highest degree of detachment (vairAgya)” for the parmahamsa samnyAsins of either category.


  25. Dennis,

    A few responses!

    Hitherto, whenever there is a conflict between what Sankara said, and others, you have always argued that we should stick to Sankara’s teaching. And Sankara explicitly says that samnyAsa is enjoined for the seeker – see last part of this article, as well as the new article – and that it is spontaneous / inevitable for one who has knowledge.

    Secondly, if you are putting Vidyaranya’s teaching on this aspect over that of Sankara, then do you concur with his emphasis on samadhi? Also do you concur with Vidyaranya’s strict definition of vidvat-samnyAsa (rather than relying on your argument that mentally a jnani knows he is not a doer, so this is sufficient)
    “He who has no garments whatever . . . to cover the body, sleeps on the bare ground, using his arm as pillow . . .”?

    Interestingly in Pancadashi, Vidyaranya seems to use jnani and jivamukta interchangeably, and never as a progression.

  26. Dear Ramesam,

    Thank you for your post. My comments were offered as my understanding, via Shankara, of the issue raised, viz. about the “disappearance of the world” on the attainment of Self-Knowledge. You say I have not understood the complexities. That may be. I’m a simple guy. One of the beauties of Vedanta is it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. From Ramana Maharshi sitting silent and serene reading the newspaper to the mountains of commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries that are also a hallmark of the tradition.

    When Ramana Maharshi was asked, as you do, what exactly the jnani’s perception of the world is like he replied, “why worry about the world and what happens to it after Self-realization? First realize the Self. What does it matter if the world is perceived or not?” I would not presume to disagree with the great Mahatma.

    Your repeated use of the words “what exactly” struck me as I read your post. As one approaches the heart of spirituality, the emphasis on exactitude yields diminishing returns. As Aristotle said, an educated man looks for precision only as far as the nature of the subject permits. Precisely so. For the Vedantin it is much more important to keep an open mind and softened heart so that the truth may be received.

    Lastly, you quote me: “With this firmness of vision comes a complete change of outlook” and then ask if I “really think that there is a change in the outlook beyond the intellectual level of Advaita?”. If pressed to give an exact answer to your question I would have to say yes – and no.

  27. Dear Ramesam and Venkat,

    I am certainly not suggesting that what Vidyaranya said should ‘trump’ what Shankara said. But since he and other writers always refer back to shruti and Shankara, and since they are mostly highly regarded, one assumes that they were quite knowledgeable! That doesn’t mean that we cannot also reject their conclusions of course.

    I mentioned this because I am still endeavouring to cover the ‘post-Shankara’ thoughts on pratibandha-s for Parts 7 and 8 (and 9??) of the series. So it was presently in my mind.

    I don’t actually think that Vidyaranya wrote pa~nchadashI and your comment (Venkat) that he did not differentiate j~nAnI and jIvanmukta reinforces this, because he clearly does in jIvanmukti viveka. Here is a relevant quotation for both of you. I cannot locate the precise verse in the two copies that I have. It is given as ’51’ (presumably 2.51) by Fort, from whose book I take it. (He references the translation by S. Subrahmanya Sastri and T. R. Srinivas Ayyangar):

    “Vidyaranya says Yajnavalkya is not a jIvanmukta with peaceful mind, even though he is a knower of Brahman (verse 74, P. 287). Brahman knowers (unlike jIvanmuktas) have impure impressions like jealousy and anger. This point reinforces Vidyaranya’s emphasis on continuing to extinguish the mind and mental impressions even after knowledge of the real. Further evidence is his distinction between 1) a knower (j~nAnI) or seeker (vidviShA) renunciant and 2) a jIvanmukta or realized (vidvat) renunciant (51, P. 254). The ‘mere’ knower must renew his efforts of destroying impressions and extinguishing his mind to become fully realized. Due to currently manifesting (prArabdha) karma, even one with knowledge cannot permanently remove impressions and mental manifestations without practicing yoga steadily. Doubt, error and other attachments fully disappear only when (by yoga) the mind is pacified (51, P. 255).

    Best wishes,

  28. Hi Dennis

    Does that mean you now concur with the idea of dissolution of mind, which is expounded at length in jivan-mukti-viveka?

    I have Swami Mokshadananda’s (from Advaita Ashrama) translation of this book. No verse numbers are given though. However this does lead to an interesting topic.

    In the first prakarana, Vidyaranya says that for the attainment of knowledge, vividisa sannyasa is necessary, whilst for liberation in life, vidvat- sannyasa is necessary. He says this because a knower of truth needs to fully turn away from the world, and attain a state of dissolution of mind. In the fourth prakarana (page 285 of this book), he quotes from Yoga Vasishtha, specifying 7 stages of yoga, of which the fourth state is called enlightenment:

    “Then, the direct and undifferentiated awareness of the oneness of the supreme Self and individual self – Brahman and Atman – arises from Vedanta texts, which is the fourth stage named enlightenment”

    “This yogi who has attained the fourth stage is called the knower of Brahman. The three stages from the fifth are subdivisions of jivanmukti. They arise according to the degrees of tranquility accomplished by the practice of superconscious concentration”

    He basically says Janaka was at the fourth stage. The sixth stage he says is like deep sleep, and that one can only be aroused by others. Of the seventh stage he says:

    “No arousal at all for the yogi who has attained the seventh stage named transcendence, either by himself or others.”

    So if you concur with Vidyaranya on this, then the jivanmukta (at the seventh stage) does not see the world, or to the extent he is at a lower stage (5th and 6th) he barely acts in the world, as his mind is immersed in samadhi

    Best wishes,

  29. Hi Venkat,

    As I said, I was quoting Vidyaranya because I happened to be reading about him. I don’t agree with most of the things he says! Definitely not manonaSha or saMnyAsa or samAdhi after knowledge for starters. He was seriously influenced (= misled) by Yoga philosophy and consequently diverged drastically from traditional Advaita.

    Best wishes,

  30. Dennis

    But isn’t this your primary argument for a progression from jnani to jivanmukta, since you have agreed that this was not a distinction that Sankara made? And you said that he was someone who should be considered given his study of Sankara.

    I’m not quite sure why your refutations are based on someone who you then say you disagree with?


  31. No.

    I agree that Shankara did not make the distinction. I have argued so far that, despite, this, the idea that ‘obstacles’ to vyAvahArika life may remain post-enlightenment is still perfectly reasonable (and does not contradict Shankara). Now, in anticipation of Parts 7 and 8, I am pointing out that this reasoning is particularly appropriate when we consider some writers post Shankara, espcially Vidyaranya.

    Best wishes,

  32. Yes but, if 90% of what a witness says is dubious, that you disagree with, then it is surely flawed logic to rely on the 10% that happens to agree with your thesis as the main support (“some writers post Shankara, especially Vidyaranya”) for your thesis?

  33. The other point to make Dennis is that Vidyaranya spoke of vidvat-sannyasa (not just mental renunciation) as a pre-requisite post knowledge to gain liberation. He did so not in the context of obstacles, but to stabilise the knowledge through dissolution of the mind and samadhi. You seem to be cherry-picking Vidyaranya quotes out of the full context of his argument.

    Surely that is a recipe for Confusion? 😉

  34. As I keep saying, I am not putting any reliance upon what Vidyaranya says. I am simply documenting the ‘history’ of what Advaita has said about ‘obstacles’ remaining post enlightenment. I am ‘cherry-picking’ only in the sense that I am specifically indicating what all these teachers have said on this subject. Why don’t you wait until you have read what I have written on ‘Post-Shankara’ aspects of pratibandha-s before drawing these conclusions? (manonaSha and samAdhi are separate topics in the book, incidentally, (although I agree they are related) and I have written about those aspects under those headings.)

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