Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 1/2

Shankara, the 7th-8th CE AcArya and unquestionably the biggest exponent of Advaita, maintains that:

नोत्पद्यते विना ज्ञानं विचारेणान्यसाधनैः 

यथा पदार्थभानं हि प्रकाशेन विना क्वचित्      —  11, aparokShAnubhUti.

Meaning: Knowledge of the Self is not brought about by any other means than inquiry, just as an object is nowhere perceived without the help of illumination.

Thus, “inquiry” or “investigation” is the unique and incomparable tool available for a committed seeker in search of Truth in the Advaita philosophy. The prominent trio of Advaita teachers of the 20th century popularized this method of approach called ‘Self-inquiry’ through what they often referred to as the Direct path. With its simplicity of expression and the promise of directness of access to the Self, the Direct path attracted many Westerners into its fold, resulting in a mushrooming of teachers, more condensed processes like Neo-Advaita, and even premature declarations of attainment of the Self.

Alas, people have totally forgotten what Shankara said in a verse just ahead of the one quoted at the beginning of this article. He said:

उक्तसाधनयुक्तेन विचारः पुरुषेण हि 

कर्तव्यो ज्ञानसिद्ध्यर्थमात्मनः शुभमिच्छता    —   10, aparokShAnubhUti.

Meaning: Those who have the aforementioned qualifications and a desire to do good to themselves should continuously inquire and reflect (on the teaching) to attain the Knowledge of the Self.

Shankara enumerated in detail what those [aforementioned] qualifications are at the very first Vedanta sUtra-s that says:

अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा   — 1.1.1, Vedanta sUtra-s

Meaning:  Hence, thereafter, (is to be undertaken) a deliberation on brahman.

Shankara writes: “Vedic texts speaking of brahman give rise only to Its Knowledge. Since Knowledge is not a product of injunctions, a man is not impelled to know, just as for instance, he is not in his acquisition of knowledge through the contact of his eye with some object. Therefore, something has to be pointed out as the “pre-requisite” after which it is taught that the deliberation on brahman can proceed.” (Translation: Swami Gambhirananda).

So then, what are the “pre-requisites”?

Shankara comments further: “उच्यते —



शमदमादिसाधनसम्पत् ,

मुमुक्षुत्वं च ।

तेषु हि सत्सु , प्रागपि धर्मजिज्ञासाया ऊर्ध्वं च, शक्यते ब्रह्म जिज्ञासितुं ज्ञातुं च ; न विपर्यये । तस्मात् अथशब्देन यथोक्तसाधनसम्पत्त्यानन्तर्यमुपदिश्यते ॥”

Meaning: The answer is: ‘Discretion between the eternal and the non-eternal; dispassion for the enjoyment of fruits (results of works) here (in this world) and hereafter (posthumously); a perfection of such practices as control of the mind, control of the senses and organs etc.; and intense yearning for liberation.

Granted the existence of these, brahman can be deliberated on or known even before or after an inquiry into virtuous deeds, but not otherwise. Therefore, by the word ‘atha‘ is enjoined the succession to a perfection of the practices mentioned here.’

Sage Vasishta devotes an entire chapter in Yogavasishta on the pre-requisites (Chapter 2 titled: The conduct of a Spiritual Aspirant). Unfortunately, the modern day teachers seem to ignore the prior preparation of the mind necessary before embarking on a path of Self-inquiry.  Dr. Greg Goode does talk about Ethics and Morals in his last book (After Awareness, 2016), but even that falls too short of the necessity of fulfilling prior eligibility criteria of cleansing the mind by a seeker. This is the Mistake No. 1.


When Vedanta speaks about “Inquiry” or “Investigation,” these words are used to connote a very distinct and unique meaning. Most of us familiar with our news reports and TV thrillers, imagine that the questioning goes to identify the culprit of a crime, establish the “Why?” and “Wherefore?” of the criminal, the motivation and enabling causal forces and so on. However, the Vedantic investigation does NOT begin with the questions that start with “Why?” In fact, the scriptures do not even care to deal with such matters as “Why there is a creation?; Why there is suffering in the world? etc.” If there is a persistent seeker believing in the existence of a creation and a world into which s/he is born, some fictious answers may be initially provided to appease his/her curiosity, but the seeker is quickly led to transcend such belief systems. Shankara mentions unequivocally in his commentary on Vedanta sUtra-s as follows:

चेयं परमार्थविषया सृष्टिश्रुतिः ; अविद्याकल्पितनामरूपव्यवहारगोचरत्वात् ,
ब्रह्मात्मभावप्रतिपादनपरत्वाच्च — इत्येतदपि नैव “विस्मर्तव्यम्” ॥  — Shankara at 2.1.33, brahma sUtra-s

Meaning:  The shruti statement of creation does not relate to any reality, for “it must not be forgotten” that such a text is valid within the range of activities concerned with name and form called up by ignorance, and it is meant for propounding the fact that everything has brahman as its Self. (Translation by Swami Gambhirananda).

The scriptures do not consider that they are obligated to explain the “Why?” question. What they answer is “What to be done to be out of the mire we find ourselves in right now?” So, the Vedantic investigation begins with the question “What?”

We have to ask:
“What or who am “I”?”
“What is this world that surrounds me?”

Trying to equate the Vedantic investigation with a purpose of reprobation, punishment and delivering just desserts will put us into endless loops of wasted efforts. For, in the ultimate analysis, we find counter-intuitively that there was no culprit, ‘nothing has ever happened, nothing was ever born,’ as Gaudapada declares in his kArikA in chapter-3  on mANDUkya Upanishad.  He writes:

न कश्चिज्जायते जीवः सम्भवोऽस्य न विद्यते ।
एतत्तदुत्तमं सत्यं यत्र किञ्चिन्न जायते ॥ — 3.48, Gaudapada kArikA

Meaning: No individual (jIva) is ever born. There des not exist any cause which can produce it. This is the highest Truth that nothing is ever born. (Translation: Swami Nikhilananda).

He repeats the same verse in chapter 4 (4.71) for emphasis.

Therefore, the Vedantic investigation CANNOT  proceed with “Why?” question keeping our motive to get rid of the evil-causing-bad-elements so that we can have a ‘happy-ever-after’ life in the world like in a Police inquiry. Many of the modern Western Advaita teachers do not seem to lay stress on this aspect. This is the Mistake No. 2.


I find that in our common experience that a large percentage of the spiritual aspirants go with an unquestioning devotional approach towards a Godhead or a mighty Power, with their sole objective being “the welfare, security and good prosperity for themselves and their families.” Relatively speaking, only a small percentage of the general public want to question any authority and go with an astute analytical mind to discover the really real ‘Reality.’ A large number of people within this minority investigate the nature, the physical laws behind the universe and so on. They constitute the pool of Scientists and carry out their investigations going by the accepted and approved ‘scientific method’ based on third-party evidence. Of late, some of the Scientists are recognizing the  importance of subjective or first-party evidence and conduct their research on that basis.

A rare few of the intellectually oriented analytically minded people would have become aware of the Advaita philosophy and its investigative methods. This small section of inquirers are undoubtedly gifted in their knowledge, intellectual abilities and incisive logic. The downside of these people with such a rare mental caliber is that they tend to be, as our colleague Martin once hinted tangentially in an article of his, “too litigious”!  I may add, perhaps, egoistic too. For, it becomes difficult for them to accept their own failure to see what is the Truth, though it happens to be right under their very nose. Their own ego cannot be subdued and they would like to play ‘the victim role’ looking for a scapegoat to cover up their own shortcoming, as the Psychologists tell us. And it is not at all difficult for them to weave a highly complicated labyrinth of wordy mazes to explain away why they missed to find the Truth. It is rather unfortunate that in the history of the development of Advaita philosophy since the Upanishadic times, it had a good share of such giants of intellectualism. These days, submerged in the blinding light of their own academic scholarship, some of these masters may not even stop at apportioning a large amount of  blame right on the doorstep of Shankara instead of admitting their inability to understand a simple truth announced by him. This, in my humble view, is the Mistake No. 3. 

(Continued … Part -2)

7 thoughts on “Mistakes and Misconceptions In Vedantic Investigation – 1/2

  1. Welcome back, Ramesam! Great post!

    The only comment I had was to wonder why Swami Gambhirananda translates ‘jij~nAsA’ as ‘deliberation’. It does not mean that as I understand it. ‘Deliberation’ implies thinking about, wondering about, etc. something that one has already heard. To my mind, it should be translated as ‘desire to know’; i.e. the precursor to enquiry and being taught be a qualified teacher. Gambhirananda himself translates later that “jij~nAsA means ‘a wish to know'”. So why he translates it initially as ‘deliberation’, I cannot understand.

    I definitely agree that many post-Shankara writers became enmenshed in largely pointless debates trying to ‘further elucidate’ Shankara’s statements about various concepts that are always mithyA and ultimately to be apavAda’d anyway!

    Best wishes,

  2. Thank you, Dennis, for your kind words.

    Re: Translating ‘jij~nAsA’ as ‘deliberation’:
    I don’t know, if you would call it Indian English, I did not feel it to be odd! 🙂

    The word “deliberate” implies a carefully studied unhurried and comprehensive consideration of an issue. The noun form ‘deliberation’ fits better for the aphoristic style rather than the verbal form ‘desire’ or ‘wish’ where one who desires becomes the focus.

    I am sure you may have also noticed that Swami Gambhirananda explains in a Footnote that: The literal meaning is “wish to know brahman.” … “Wish” figuratively means “the deliberation resulting from the wish.”


  3. Yes, but ‘desiring to know’ is not something about which we can have a choice – you either have it or you don’t. One can, on the other hand, choose to deliberate on a matter, whether reluctantly or readily. Deliberation might then be an injunction from the Dvaitin, whereas desire to know would indicate the mumukShutva of an Advaitin.

    Best wishes,

  4. Dear Dennis,

    I heard one teacher talking about a difference between jijnAsa and mumukShatva. As Shankara defines, “ज्ञातुमिच्छा जिज्ञासा” (jijnAsa is a desire to know). jijnAsa can be driven by mere “curiosity.” For the attainment of liberation (i.e., the realization, “I am brahman,”) there has to be a single-minded resolve, i.e., mumukShatva.

    Monier-Williams Dictionary does show a slight variation in the meaning of the two words, jijnAsu and mumukShu. But Shankara’s usage of jijnAsa seems to consider jijnAsa resulting in the realization of brahman. It is interesting that Swami Gambhirananda in a foot note explains the mediate knowledge (gained after jijnAsa) is causal to immediate Knowledge as the effect.


  5. I don’t believe the Advaita tradition has distinguished the mumukshu and jijnasu. Jijnasa or the desire to know was in relation to mumukshutvam or the intense desire for moksha. The mumukshu was one who intensely desired moksha. In other words, the jijnasu was a mumukshu.

    Swami Chidananda Saraswati puts it this way: “Jijnasu means one who has a great thirst for jnana, spiritual knowledge, one who makes vigorous efforts to attain jnana. Mumukshu means one who is desirous of attaining moksha or liberation, one who has keen aspiration to attain liberation. So in the ultimate context a jijnasu who attains liberation is also a mumukshu. He wants knowledge because he wants liberation.”

    • “I don’t believe the Advaita tradition has distinguished the mumukshu and jijnasu. Jijnasa or the desire to know was in relation to mumukshutvam or the intense desire for moksha. The mumukshu was one who intensely desired moksha. In other words, the jijnasu was a mumukshu.”

      I don’t begrudge your “belief!”
      How are you sure that the word meanings have remained unchanged for the last 1500 – 1600 years?

  6. Hello Ramesam,

    I’m not sure. I’m just not aware of the distinction having been made in the works with which I’m familiar. And I’ve read a few comments such as the one by Swami Chitananda which for all intents and purposes conflate the two terms.


Comments are closed.