Review of article titled ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by Shankara Bhagavadpada’

(Ramesam asked me to review the following article, with which I complied after much  hesitation. The article is over 40 p. long and quite dense and complicated in parts – in other words, ‘academic’: for specialists only; one could add: cutting the slices so thin, that the substance is practically lost, or forgotten).

Review of  ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by ´Sa ˙ nkara Bhagavadp¯ada’ – by Ramakrishnan Balasubrahmanian

The first impression, on a quick glance at the beginning of the article, is that the criticisms of the author contained in the article, and addressed to the writings of Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati (SSS), a recognized sage and scholar, are extensive to the latter’s whole opus, as coming from an uncompromising position concerning the teachings and method of Shankaracharia. Some of the words and expressions used in the article are quasi-litigious (e.g., ‘intellectual arrogance’, ‘vociferously opposes’, ‘pointless’, ‘glaring inconsistency’, ‘making errors’, ‘misconstruing’, ‘twisting’, ‘has invented a new term’, etc.), reminiscent of the theological disputes and diatribes in the European Middle Ages. Evidently, SSS had his followers as well as his detractors, and the same can be said of the author of this article, who belongs to an opposite camp. Occasionally, he shows signs of (partial) approval of his adversary’s (if one can use this term) enunciates; for example: “No doubt SSS’s textual analysis skills are excellent, but the problem I see with SSS’s writings is his obsession with terminology, rather than philosophy. Indeed none of his works are about the philosophy of advaita [!], but are oriented almost exclusively towards contradicting previous commentators of ´Sa˙nkar¯ac¯arya”. And soon after that: “The difference between Padmapada and SSS is that the former is a philosopher, while the latter is a textual analyst”. Concerning these  pervading criticisms of the work of SSS by the author, Ramakrishna Balasubramanian (RB), the reader may judge whether they are excessive, unwarranted, or justified.

The main criticism by the author, in respect of the interpretation of avidya by SSS, is that this is not due to a double superimposition of the self and the non-self, as the latter maintains, but only to a superimposition of a subject, non-self, on the self: “[T]he fundamental error is a superimposition of an observer on the real… and by a reverse process the inner self, which is the witness of everything, is superimposed on the inner-organ”. He calls this reverse act (or process, as he calls it) ‘natural’, since “a superimposition of observer on the self naturally leads to the imagination of objects ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ the observer, just as described by Gaud.ap¯ad¯ac¯arya”. He adds: “The usage of the continuative ‘adhyasya’ in the above passage also clearly indicates that the superimposition of an observer is avidy¯a and is prior to the reverse superimposition”.

Logically prior?, prior in time? Or simultaneous, by mutual implication?

Before going further, the following is a quotation from the Introduction to BS Bh by Shankara:

“It is on the presupposition of this mutual superimposition of the self and the non-self, called avidya that all conventions of the means and objects of right knowledge – whether secular or sacred – proceed, as also all the Sastras dealing with injunction and prohibition or final release.”

The author cannot ignore that, and, indeed, under the section ‘In What Sense can Avidy¯a be Called Mutual Superimposition of the Real and Unreal?’ he states: “It is not completely incorrect to say that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and unreal. ´ San˙ kar¯ac¯arya and Sure´svar¯ac¯arya do mention this, e.g., :de :h-A.a:tma:na.eaH I+ta:=e ;ta.=-A:Dya.a.=:ea:pa:Na.a in the prose section of Upade´s¯ahasr¯ı 2.62. This is because the superimposition of an observer on the inner-self naturally leads to the reverse process of superimposing the inner-self on the inner organ. But note the important fact that the reverse superimposition is that of the self onto the ego-mind-body complex. No where do we [find] statements that avidy¯a is the mutual superimposition of the real and unreal by the mind”. This is followed by some complicated argumentation I will not go into.

Here comes a rather important point; at least this is the way I see it: IS SUPERIMPOSITION PRIOR, SUBSEQUENT TO, OR COINCIDENTAL WITH IGNORANCE (AVIDYA)? Certainly, superimposition amounts to ignorance, which in most cases can be used as its synonym. This issue will be further elaborated in subsequent posts.

The author continues: “… And, of course this ego sense is superimposed on the self due to avidy¯a … When the conception of j¯ıva itself is due to avidy¯a [or, alternately, to superimposition?], how can avidy¯a be the ‘natural tendency of the mind to superimpose the self and not-self?’”. We saw two paragraphs above that for him (RB) what is natural is the reverse process: the superimposition of the self on the inner organ only – he seems to give much importance to this point.

One could answer his question thus: “Is not the jiva, together with its internal organ, ‘created’ as by one ‘act’ (an act of pseudo-creation entailing the apparent multiplicity of phenomena, jivas, etc. – which act could be called ‘the principle of individuation’)? Whether this ‘act’ has its locus in Consciousness or in an individual mind (to avoid the contrived notion of ‘universal mind’), the mind thus ‘constituted’ does not need to have a ‘natural tendency’ to superimpose the self and the non-self, since it is already done!”. Reminds one of the first vibration (throb) Ramesam was referring to… “and the subsequent harmless first I-consciousness thought is (in the classical terminology) Isvara.
The subsequent ‘me’ is the ego or I-thought (ahankara vritti).”

In view of the above, the author’s following statements: “The conception of j¯ıva, i.e., the ‘individual soul’, is prior to that of the mind, since the mind is predicated of a j¯ıva.” [And so?]…  “In any case, where did the mind spring up from to confuse the self and not-self? Is not the mind itself in the ‘not-self’ category?” — seem confusing and irrelevant.

Quotes: (1) “It is certainly ironic that SSS’s exposition of avidy¯a has the same problem, namely avidy¯a cannot account for it’s own substrate, namely the mind!”— I already dealt with that.

(2) “SSS misunderstands this superimposition and reverse superimposition as being performed by the mind. SSS’s confused understanding of avidy¯a has rather serious consequences, resulting in his confused understanding the role of ´sruti in facilitating knowledge, and an illogical examination of three states.”

I will try to continue my defence of Swami Satchidanandendra’s (SSS) position in respect of Shankara’s doctrines in the following submissions.


2 thoughts on “Review of article titled ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by Shankara Bhagavadpada’

  1. Thank you Martin for the review.

    I would like to submit that it was only a “request” from me and I cannot arrogate myself to “ask” such a senior person like you.

    The reason for my request was, as you know, based on the fact of your double ‘expertise’ — knowledge of SSSS’s works and the nimble capacity you have in delicately excising malignant over-growths with surgical precision and sew back a body of healthy text!

    warm regards,

  2. I sincerely appreciate your words, Ramesam, although I am sure they are over-generous. Saying, at the beginning of my review, that “I accepted after much hesitation”, was really not more than a polite formula or rhetorical touch, since I did not have the least hesitation in ‘complying with your request’ – I did it readily and without thinking it twice (which makes of me a hypocrite!). It was a pleasure to do so, the only hesitation, or doubt, on my part being the responsibility in confronting such a task, given the credentials of the author of the essay as compared with mine (could I do it with a minimum of competence?). Thank you again,

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