Knowledge, Action and Liberation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost readers will be aware of the Brahmasutras – the third ‘leg’ of the prasthAna traya (the threefold set of scriptures that constitute the authority for Advaita – and some will even have read them! And you may also know that the first, famous sutra is athAto brahma jij~nAsA – Now, therefore, an enquiry into Brahman. It is the claim that Brahman forms the subject matter of Vedanta and has to be enquired into if we are to gain Self-knowledge.

The author of the Brahmasutras is said to be vyAsa, also known as bAdarAyaNa and the purport of the work is to summarize, in an extremely abbreviated form, the philosophy of vedAnta, showing how this naturally derives from the (last portion of) Vedas. (Of course, this does not mean a summary of Advaita. Others have written commentaries on the Brahmasutras and shown how it is commensurate with the philosophies of dvaita and vishiShTAdvaita.)

What fewer readers will know is that there is a similar (much longer) work, called the pUrva mImAMsA sUtra-s, written by the ‘father’ of pUrva mImAMsA philosophy, Jaimini. And, surely not coincidentally, the first sutra in this work is athAto dharma jij~nAsA – Now, therefore, an enquiry into dharma. This makes the claim that dharma forms the subject matter of the Vedas and has to be enquired into if we are to gain liberation from saMsAra. The word ‘dharma’ is often translated as ‘duty’ and the meaning of this word relates to what we ought to be doing with our lives. Their claim is that knowledge is useless, since it cannot produce any benefit. They utilize only the first part of the Vedas – the karma kANDa – believing that only actions can achieve anything and that, consequently, we must assiduously follow the injunctions, rituals and meditations prescribed there in order to attain liberation at some point in the future.

As a trivial example, reading a guidebook to Iceland or wherever is not going to allow us actually to appreciate the beauty of the landscape, smell the volcanoes and feel the heat of the rock pools etc. We have physically to travel there in order to do this. The discoveries of science do not in themselves bring any benefit; in order for this to happen, the knowledge has to be implemented, industrial processes derived and perfected etc. So it is with the knowledge of Brahman presented in the Upanishads and Gita. In itself, this achieves nothing; in order to derive the benefit, we have to go away and meditate on this, do brahma upAsana. So say the pUrva mImAMsaka-s.

In the context of this discussion, Brahma Sutra I.1.4 – tattu samanvayAt – is a very significant one. The first 3 sutras have established that Brahman is the essential subject matter of Vedanta and should be investigated into. Here, vyAsa says (in the inimitable manner of sutra writing): tat (that) tu (but) samanvayAt (because of regular order, connection, ‘harmony’).

This should be construed as saying that Brahman can be understood only from the scriptures and is the principal topic therein. The word ‘tu’ effectively means ‘only’ and it is considered to be a rejection of all philosophies that claim otherwise. In particular, Shankara now takes the opportunity to refute the pUrva mImAMsA philosophy of Jaimini at great length.

Although the pUrva mImAMsaka-s claim that knowledge cannot be the purport of the Vedas and place little value on the entire j~nAna kANDa portion, they do acknowledge that it can serve to incite us to action. They note that the Bridhadarankya Upanishad (II.iv.5) tells us that we must perform shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana in order to gain liberation. They interpret this as meaning that we should listen to the teaching and reflect upon it so as to gain the knowledge of Brahman and that we should then perform upAsana on Brahman in order to gain mokSha, the actual gaining of liberation being the fruit of this action of meditation.

According to their philosophy, there are four ways in which actions produce results:

1) ‘reaching’ or getting somewhere (Apti)
2) producing something (utpatti)
3) purifying (saMskAra)
4) modifying (vikAra)

Shankara says that none of these could apply to Brahman and that, therefore, brahma upAsana, meditation on Brahman, is not possible. This is supported by the scriptures, for example “Know that alone to be Brahman and not what people worship as an object”. (Kena U. I.5)

The pUrvapakSha is claiming that shravaNa and manana produce the knowledge but that we then have to ‘do’ nididhyAsana in order to gain mokSha. (He interprets nididhyAsana as upAsana.) Shankara says that this is not the case. shravaNa gives the knowledge. We then have manana to remove any doubts we may have about what has been heard. And we have nididhyAsana to remove any pratibandha-s or ‘habits’ preventing us from appreciating that ‘I am That’.

Swami Paramarthananda gives a metaphor for this process. He says it is like setting up an electric light in a dark room in order to see. We initially install the wiring, switch and electricity etc. This is equivalent to doing sAdhana chatuShTaya sampatti as mental preparation. Suppose that we now go into the room and switch on the light switch but there is no light. On investigation, we find there is nothing at all wrong with the circuitry, light bulb etc. When we pressed the switch, the light bulb did actually light up. The problem is that there are two black cloths hanging in front of the bulb and the light is not getting through. The light is there but there are obstructions and these have to be removed before we can get the benefit of the light.

The light bulb illuminating when electricity is connected represents shravaNa ­– gaining Self-knowledge on hearing the teaching. But there are still likely to be obstructions and these have to be removed before we actually gain the benefit of the light. Firstly there are usually some remaining points which are not fully understood and require clarification. Secondly, there is the long-standing belief that ‘I am this body-mind’ and ‘Atman is something else’. manana removes the former and nididhyAsana the latter. The attitude of Advaita is that all three ‘stages’ are required in order to gain ‘unobstructed’ knowledge. Enlightenment could be defined as ‘unobstructed Self-knowledge’.

And none of these processes (shravaNa, manana or nididhyAsana) constitutes an ‘action’. Self-knowledge giving mokSha is not an action; it reveals the fact that we have always been, and always will be, free. Furthermore, it is not the case that knowledge cannot produce benefits. The classic metaphor is that of the rope mistaken for a snake. Gaining the knowledge of the rope immediately dispels the fear of being bitten etc. In the same way, we would straightaway gain relief at discovering that what was thought to be a life-threatening illness was not such at all, even though no activity had taken place.

It is also perfectly reasonable that knowledge results in mokSha and action cannot, for knowledge depends upon the object, whereas action depends on the subject. If I hold up a red balloon, you do not have to do anything to determine its color; you are obliged to see that it is red, for the redness depends upon the balloon and not upon you, the subject (ignoring physical defects of course!) On the other hand, in order to perform any action, you the subject have to do something; the object is not involved until the action is performed by you.

Nothing needs to be ‘done’ to gain mokSha because we are already free; mokSha is an already accomplished fact. We are not a body-mind but the sachChidAnanda brahman. All that needs to happen is for the fact to be revealed by shravaNa, doubts to be removed by manana, and the mistaken idea that Atman is something to be found elsewhere to be dropped. That we are already brahman then stands revealed.

The corollary to this is that, since there are (or can be) effectively three stages to the process, we can have Self-knowledge (the light has been switched on); we can have doubt-free Self-knowledge (the first black cloth has been removed); and we can be a Jivanmukta (the second cloth has also been removed and there are no habitual obstacles preventing us from having the full benefits – j~nAna phalam – of mokSha).