Mulavidya – Real or Unreal? III


  1. ‘The Mu¯ la¯vidya¯ Controversy Among Advaita Veda¯ntins: was S ´ an_ kara Himself Responsible?’ S. K. A. Murthi (critical of SSS and supporting Martha Doherty)

(From Introduction)

The concept of ignorance, known as avidya¯, is central to the position of Advaita

Veda¯nta. S ´ a _ nkara gives an exposition about the nature of avidya¯ in his introduction to the Brahmasu¯ tras—the introductory section of his Brahmasu¯trabha¯s:ya is traditionally known as Adhya¯sa-bha¯s: ya.1 The bha¯s:ya (commentary) of S ´ a _nkara was further commented upon by the Advaita scholars with the intention of strengthening the viewpoints of Advaita, particularly on the doctrine of avidya¯.

These post-S´a _ nkara commentators were known as vya¯khya¯nka¯ras. Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati (hereafter SS) in the 1930s and forties introduced certain ideas challenging the then prevailing tradition, which turned into a controversy, leading to a debate among Advaita Veda¯ntins regarding the nature of the concept of avidya¯. Michael Comans referring to the importance of this debate remarks, ‘‘In fact, if there has been a debate internal to the s´a¯ _ nkara tradition of Advaita over the last 50 years, it is the dispute between the protagonists of the views of Sacchida¯nandendra and those who would defend the standard position’’. This dispute was regarding the idea of ‘‘root ignorance’’ (mu¯ la¯vidya¯) as a substantive (bha¯varu¯pa), indescribable (anirvacanı¯ya) matter enveloping Brahman and being an obstruction for the realization of Brahman. Martha Doherty has given a lucid exposition of this mu¯ la¯vidya¯ debate where she emphasizes the significance of avidya¯ to the Advaita position.

The concept of avidya¯ is crucial to the Advaita position, for without it, there is no

non-duality (advaita). The perceived duality is sublated as a reality by the

knowledge of an underlying non-dual reality. Understanding the duality as real is

an error, which is a function of ignorance (avidya¯) of the non-dual reality (2005;

  1. 210).

Further, reviewing the post-S´a _ nkara commentators’ interpretation of avidya¯ , she shows that they attributed a causal role to avidya¯, which functions as a material cause in concealing the true nature of Brahman. This is referred to as the ‘‘root ignorance’’ (mu¯ la¯vidya¯) ‘‘in keeping with its causal status’’ (ibid, pp. 213–214).

The concept of avidya¯ is also equated with ma¯ya¯. It is considered to have a power (_sakti). It was SS’s contention that such an idea of avidya¯ was alien to the original S ´a _ nkara commentaries and was foisted on S ´ a _nkara by the later vya¯khya¯nka¯ras. According to him there was not even an implication of mu¯ la¯vidya¯ in the original commentaries of S ´ a _ nkara. He holds the post-S´a _ nkara commentators, beginning with the author of Pan˜capa¯dika¯ (supposed to be written by Padmapa¯da) and the sub-commentator of this work Praka¯s´a¯tman (who wrote the sub-commentary Vivaran:a) and his protagonists, known as vivaran:aka¯ras, responsible for this misconstrual of S ´ a _ nkara.


C. ‘A Review of Martha Doherty’s paper published in The Journal of Indian Philosophy (2005). A Commendation and not a Condemnation’ (a critical review; author unnamed). (Main points only are given here).

Śan@kara’s view on avidyā and the controversy arising on account of criticisms by Swamiji of the interpretation of avidyā by the sub-commentators on Śan@kara (excluding Sureśwara) herein after referred to as traditionalists/advaitins forms the focus of the paper presented by Martha (M).

Admittedly, “Mūlāvidyānirāsā” (herein after referred to as MVN) authored by Swamiji, is the primary source used in this work for his thoughts on the nature of avidyā – Note 8 on page 212. Everyone concerned with this matter will agree that in order to properly understand this polemic MVN

(a) one should be thorough with prasthānatrayabhās_yam of Śan@kara and Sureśwara’s vārtikam & nais_karmyasiddhih., which form the basis for Swamiji’s views and which are profusely quoted by him in his works to substantiate his stand;

(b) one should be thorough with all the major works by Vedantins – Pancapādikā, Bhāmatī, Pancapādikāvivaran_am, Brahmasiddhih_, Is_t_asiddhih_, Advaitasiddhih_, Siddhāntaleśasangrahah_ etc. which have been dealt with in detail by Swamiji in MVN;

(c) one should be thorough with bhās_ya of dualistic vedantins like Śrībhās_ya of Rāmānuja etc which is also dealt with by Swamiji in this work;

(d) thorough study of all these mentioned above, presupposes a sound knowledge of Sanskrit, the language in which the works are written in. This prerequisite is required so as to avoid being misled by errors in translation unconscious or otherwise;

(e) last and the most important, one should possess a sharp discernable mind devoid of prejudice and influence by factors external to the works directly concerned. An inward look is also essential so as to verify certain statements with one’s own experience, wherever such verification is called for…

… Acceptance of Swamiji’s views with regard to mutual adhyāsa as avidyā by the Kāncī pontiff is confirmed from the recorded speech in Sanskrit rendered by His Holiness (The audio cassette of the same is available with many of His devotees. The recorded speech is transcribed by Dr. K. Prashanth, Dept of Sanskrit Vivekananda College, Chennai – 4, titled Janmarāhityam katham sam)bhavis_yati (Meaning: How birthlessness will take place?). In that discourse His Holiness states that “The cause of appearance of duality is mithyājnānam i.e. anyathājnānam (to know a thing as what it is not) and by the destruction of this anyathājnānam alone birthlessness is attained.” Here it is seen that His Holiness refers to misapprehension (adhyāsa) as the cause of duality and not to any mūlāvidyā, the destruction of which ensures birthlessness as held by the traditionalists…

… The then pontiff of Śr_n)gerī Śārada Pīt_ha late Sri Abhinavavidyātīrtha Swamiji had paid a visit to Holenarsipur to meet Swamiji. His Holiness had offered financial aid for the publication of Swamiji’s magnum opus the VPP at that time. His Holiness said on that occasion, “By my personal visit many of my doubts have been solved. Having dedicated your whole life for the propagation of Śan)kara-siddhānta you are a true devotee indeed.” (Gangoli D.B 1997 ibid Page 30 and The Publisher’s Note to VPP).

The pontiff of Dwāraka Śārada Pīt_ha had offered financial assistance towards the publication of Swamiji’s book, Mānd_ukya Rahasya Vivr_tih_ (Acknowledgements Mānd_ukya Rahasya Vivr_tih_ by Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji). Moreover, almost all of the contributors to the Vedāntavidvadgos_t_hī speaking against mūlāvidyā were groomed under the traditionalists’ school of Vedanta only, who on finding the Truth in the Swamiji’s stand shifted their allegiance to Śan@kara alone devoid of the sub-commentators… (To continue)

5 thoughts on “Mulavidya – Real or Unreal? III

  1. Martin

    Do you know whether it is possible, and where, to get SSS’s book on Gaudapada and Mandukyakarika in English?

    Many thanks.

    • The place to look up and request copies of books by SSSS is ADHYATMA PRAKASHA KARYALAYA

      I got a copy of ‘Misconceptions on Shankara’ by SSSS (may be I did not write the title correctly). Didn’t read it yet, but seems quite interesting. I also have several small books by him, quite readable and useful. Let me now if interested in the titles.

  2. Hi Venkat,

    Thanks to these well-researched Posts of Martin, several things come out clearly.The recent Post by Dennis on Ignorance (actually a re-post of his 5-6 year old article) complements well on the subject.

    Regarding SSSS work on mANDUkya and Gaudapada:
    Dennis wrote to me just the other day:

    “I see it is actually a Sanskrit document, albeit with a fairly long English introduction. … … It is downloadable from Scribd if you are a member –”

    I have a pdf copy (about 20 MB) of SSSS Kannada book “Gaudapada hridaya” translated by D.B. Gangolli into English as “The Essential Gaudapada” (1997). It covers all the four chapters of KarikA. Mailing it to you.


  3. As I said before, there is a number of booklets by SSSS around 100 pp or less each. One such is ‘INTRODUCTIONS’ (226 pp, an exception as to length) – to 8 books (English works), and 17 (Sanskrit works), all of these Introductions of course either translated into or being in English. The last one is, precisely, to the Mandukya, which extends for over 80 pp. I found this book of Introductions to be quite useful (one might not need to read anything else ever!, there is so much in it).

  4. Ramesam – thank you very much.

    Martin – I found the SSSS website – there are a number of his works there which look interesting.. There is a wonderful short publication called Adhyatma Yoga, which SSSS explains is equivalent to Nidhidhyasana. His explanation of this is equivalent to Ramana Maharshi’s self-enquiry:

    “. . .At last the aspirant should objectify his ‘I’-sense or ego taking a stand in the true nature of his own Self, that is the Witness of the ‘I’-sense. To objectify the ‘I’-sense the only method is through discrimination . . . Through the practice of this Adhyatma Yoga at last one cognises that “my true nature of Being is beyond the ‘I’-sense or ego. When one cognises this Truth then he remains unto himself as of the nature of the Witness of the ego. Hence ‘to know the Self is to be the Self and to be the Self is to cease the identification with the not-self’. This utterance of Sri Ramanamaharshi is to be remembered by the sadhaka of Adhyatma Yoga. Here the sadhaka has traversed inwards, as it were, with a concentrated mind, followed by discrimination, and has arrived at the brink of all duality and at the very core of life. And he himself has remained as the Witness of the ego or as the Pure Self.”

    The appendix to this makes the case that for those of sharp intellect, shravana alone is sufficient, through viveka, which is clarified in terms that Ramana would have used:
    “The word discrimination is misunderstood in these days to be an intellectual exercise. It is totally forgotten here that Viveka or discrimination means that one should separate his true nature as the Self from his ego or I-sense.”

    Superb. Thank you for initiating this.

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