One to many to One – 1/2

Shankara’s genius in imparting the true unadulterated message of Advaita (a-dvaita) philosophy shines with the brilliance of thousand  Suns in his commentary at the mantra 8.12.1, chAndogya Upanishad.

Prof. M. Hiriyanna writes in his book, “Outlines of Indian Philosophy,” 1993, that “In some passages the Absolute is presented as cosmic or all-comprehensive in Its nature (saprapanca); in some others again, as acosmic or all-exclusive (niShprapanca).” The cultural Heritage of India,” Vol 1, 1937, observes that the chAndogya Upanishad “seems to teach mainly the ‘saprapanca’ view of Reality.”

Gaudapada, the first human preceptor of Advaita Vedanta, however, writes with unwavering certitude in his kArikA-s (3.48 and 4.71) on mANDUkya Upanishad, “No individual is ever born; there does not exist any reason which can produce an individual creature.”

The chAndogya, Upanishad, follows the popular teaching ‘methodology’ of Advaita, called the “Superimposition – Sublation model.” This model assumes that a world created by a Godhead pre-exists the seeker who is born into it. Thus, the very structure of the model requires positing Lord Ishwara as the Creator and a world for him  to ‘lord’ over. In line with this thinking, this Upanishad ends declaring that the seeker attains ‘brahmaloka‘ (the world where the Lord lives) on the death of the gross body. It says in its mantra, 8.15.1:

खल्वेवं वर्तयन्यावदायुषं ब्रह्मलोकमभिसम्पद्यते … 8.15.1,  chAndogya.

Meaning: He who behaves thus throughout life reaches the Region of brahma.

Implicitly then, the seeker, though has had ‘grasped’ the Non-dual message, he isn’t yet merged with brahman at that point.

Yes, a gradational teaching following the method of ‘shAkhA candra nyAya,” (to show the moon in slow steps from an object nearest on the earth and guiding the vision to moon) is beset with problems. Some people interpret the stepwise  teaching about the Self by God Brahma to Indra, the God of Devas, in the 8th Chapter of the chAndogya Upanishad to be following the shAkhA candra nyAya.  That may be “very pleasing to hear,” but, just as Indra did, many people, including learned philosophers, misconstrue the meaning of Brahma’s teaching, because of the abstruse (counterintuitive) nature of the subject (Advaita), says Shankara.

How does then Shankara distill out of the chAndogya the true Non-dual message of “No creation; no dissolution etc.” (10, Atmabindu)?

That’s where Shankara’s ingenuity deserves three bows from all of us.


Shankara uses the opportunity of commenting on 8.12.1, chAndogya, to briefly explain to us how the changeless One Self appears as ‘many’ and how the sense of an apparently separate ‘me’ gets sustained and how the finite individual attains back again his (her) pristine and pure Infinite Oneness which was actually never lost!

The Bhagavad-Gita tells us that:

निर्दोषं हि समं ब्रह्म  —  5.19, BG

[Spotless, indeed, and equanimous is brahman …]

Unlike ‘brahman,’ which is blemishless and homogeneous, our world is inherently flawed. The two main defects we live with are:

  1.  Our inability to know who we are in truth; and,
  2.  Perceiving and understanding the “seen” as something other than what it actually is in reality.

If we believe in the mere appearance (the seen), it is bondage. Liberation is to remain as the unattached substratum onto which the appearance gets projected. What is “seen” (the world including our body and various organs) is perishable. It is mortal. But it forms a springboard for us to reach the imperishable, says Shankara in his commentary. Our body is forever caught in the teeth of ‘death.’ He explains:

कदाचिदेव म्रियत इति मर्त्यमित्युक्ते तथा सन्त्रासो भवति, यथा ग्रस्तमेव सदा व्याप्तमेव मृत्युनेत्युक्तेइति वैराग्यार्थं विशेष इत्युच्यतेआत्तं मृत्युनेति 

Meaning: If the term ‘mortal’ meant only ‘liable to die at some time,’ then the fear of death would not have been so great as is it when it is said that ‘The body is held constantly by (in the jaws of) death, and that it is pervaded through and through by death; hence, for the purpose of creating a feeling of disgust for the body, the particular expression ‘is held by death’ has been used.]

The word, ‘body,’ as used here stands for ‘the body along with the sense organs, the mind and the intellect also,’ Shankara adds.

In contrast to the mortal, finite body, the Supreme Self is immortal and bodiless. Shankara says that though the two words, immortal and bodyless, imply the same meaning, the redundancy has a significance.

अमृतस्येत्यनेनैव अशरीरत्वे सिद्धे पुनरशरीरस्येति वचनं वाय्वादिवत् सावयवत्वमूर्तिमत्त्वे मा भूतामिति ;

Meaning: The term ‘Immortal’ itself connotes bodilessness, The reiteration of the same by the additional term ‘unbodied’ is meant to precluding the notion that ‘like air and other things, the Self is made up of parts and has a material shape.’

How the bodiless Self becomes embodied:

The body (inclusive of the organs) can be thought to be:

आत्मनो भोगाधिष्ठानम् ;

Meaning: This body is the abode, the substratum for the experiences of the Self.

Shankara contends that the body may be understood in a different way too. He says,

जीव रूपेण प्रविश्य सदेवाधितिष्ठत्यस्मिन्निति वा अधिष्ठानम् 

Meaning: Or the body may be regarded as the ‘abode’ of the Self, on the ground that the Self, in the form of the living Self ‘abides’ in it.

यस्येदमीदृशं नित्यमेव मृत्युग्रस्तं धर्माधर्मजनितत्वात्प्रियवदधिष्ठानम् , तदधिष्ठितः तद्वान् सशरीरो भवति 

Meaning: When the Self has for Its abode such a body, which is constantly held by death, and beset with pleasure and pain brought about by merit and demerit, then, abiding in such a body, the (bodiless) Self becomes “embodied.”

Moreover, the feeling of being embodied further gets strengthened rehearsing repeatedly the concept of ‘I am the body.’ Shankara writes:

अशरीरस्वभावस्य आत्मनः तदेवाहं शरीरं शरीरमेव अहम्इत्यविवेकादात्मभावः सशरीरत्वम्

Meaning: Though by Its own nature, the Self is unbodied, yet It comes to have such notions as ‘I am the body, and the body is me,’ on account of not understanding Its real nature; and this is what is meant by Its becoming “embodied.”

As a consequence of this, It becomes caught up in pleasures and pains, likes and dislikes and the entire paraphernalia of the orthogonal pairs of opposites.

अत एव सशरीरः सन् आत्तः ग्रस्तः प्रियाप्रियाभ्याम् 

Meaning: Hence, having thus become bodied, It becomes held by pleasure and pain.

Thus begins the unending vicious cycle of births and deaths or samsAra.

Shankara continues:

प्रसिद्धमेतत्  तस्य वै सशरीरस्य सतः प्रियाप्रिययोः बाह्यविषयसंयोगवियोगनिमित्तयोः बाह्यविषयसंयोगवियोगौ ममेति मन्यमानस्य अपहतिः विनाशः उच्छेदः सन्ततिरूपयोर्नास्तीति 

Meaning: This is a well-known fact, for this bodied Being, there is no getting rid of or removal of pleasure and pain, caused respectively by the connection (contact) and disconnection of (absence of contact with) external things; and appearing in a continuous series, which connection and disconnection It regards as Its own.

तं पुनर्देहाभिमानादशरीरस्वरूपविज्ञानेन निवर्तिताविवेकज्ञानमशरीरं सन्तं प्रियाप्रिये स्पृशतः 

Meaning: The same Being, however, when, its ignorance in the shape of its notion of the body being the Self has been set aside by its Knowledge of its real unbodied nature, then pleasure and pain do not touch It.

स्पृशिः प्रत्येकं सम्बध्यत इति प्रियं स्पृशति अप्रियं स्पृशतीति वाक्यद्वयं भवति 

Meaning: The verb ‘touch’ is to be construed with both ‘pleasure and pain,’ so that there are actually two sentences: ‘Pleasure does not touch It’ and ‘Pain does not too touch It.’

The Self even forgets that It has never been embodied. It keeps tossing up and down like the Persian wheel in the ocean of samsAra.

Swami Krishnananda says in his discourse on this mantra, “Freedom is a chimera as long as there is bodily individuality.” Therefore, it is impossible to be free so long one entertains the thought, ‘I have a body.’

The Redemption:

(To Continue … Part – 2/2)

[Note: All the above translation of the mantras and bhAShya are from Dr. G.N. Jha’s work, unless otherwise stated.]

4 thoughts on “One to many to One – 1/2

  1. Dear Ramesam,

    Some readers may find it difficult to read through Shankara bhāṣya-s, even when helped by explanatory commentaries such as the one that you so informatively provide. So, if I may, I am providing a very abbreviated summary of what I understand is being said here.

    Consciousness is described as aśarīram, which means that it does NOT have any connection with a body (at any time), so it does not make any sense to speak of its being ‘embodied’. The jñānī knows that he/she has nothing to do with the body, even while it continues (due to prārabdha) following enlightenment). Consciousness ‘animates’ the body or ‘manifests’ in the intellect as per cidābhāsa, but it does not have any connection with it (asaṅga) and, moreover, is immortal (amṛtasya). When you know that you are Atman, you also know that you are always liberated; when you identify with the body-mind, you remain in saṃsāra, thinking that you are bound. Similarly, when you identify with the waking, dreaming or sleeping mind, you think that you are limited by these when, in fact, you are really the ever unlimited turīya.

    Hope you are in agreement with this!

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Dennis,

    First a Big “Thank you” for the nice summary provided by you, perhaps, anticipating, in some way, the content of the second part of this Series. I have no doubt that it will be useful and will be appreciated by some of the Readers.

    Let me please also make a couple of observations on the readership. I make it a point to announce about the publication of my articles at a couple of the devoted Shankara Advaita Groups on the FB platform. Quite a few of them are very knowledgeable and I find that a few of them are Members of the Advaita discussion groups (Advaitin and AdvaitaL). Thus a number of dedicated followers of Advaita access the AV site and sometimes they continue the discussion at the FB.

    Moreover, as you yourself are aware, a number of the Discussants at this site are also well-read Advaitins. While it is true that every Post may not be useful for all the readers, I find that the comments here do help me in my own ‘understanding,’ and therefore, I feel obliged to you and the AV platform for this opportunity.

    Next, a couple of points with specific reference to the present article:

    I agree that the opening part does look a bit disconnected or disjointed because, I am initially gathering diverse unrelated strands which I hope to weave finally into a meaningful tapestry that may either ‘awe’ a reader or make him/her knit the brows in a frown! Certainly some debatable viewpoints will come up in the next part!!!

    The first part of the article, as you have noted, deals with how Shankara handles to bring out the ‘Nothing is ever born’ concept of Advaita in interpreting the chAndogya Upanishad that talks about a world and a godhead, Ishwara, who created it.

    The article also refers to the teaching by Brahma about the Self to Indra from the beginning of the 8th Chapter in progressive steps and how everyone including Indra misunderstood the teaching, according to Shankara. The article then takes up how the One Non-dual brahman ‘appears’ as the multiple manifold as explained by Shankara who later amplifies on the implosion of the apparent multiplicity into Oneness.
    I hope and trust the above intentions and ideas of mine come out properly in my write up.


  3. Dear Ramesam, I appreciate your efforts for the sake of clarity and comprehensiveness and believe that others as well will echo this sentiment. Kudos.

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