Shankara Answers Beginner’s Questions

Shankara bhagavat pAda, a committed and earnest Commentator (bhAShyakAra) that he was, rarely, if at all, deviates from the immediate text on which he was making his explanatory observations. Fortunately for us, he relaxes, with compassion, his own self-imposed constraints of being a strict commentator and provides a detailed exposition on the subject matter occasionally. One of such instances is his 27-page long commentary at 2.1.20, brihadAraNyaka Upanishad (BUB). It comes before taking up the dense and meaty philosophical discussions on “the Highest Wisdom of Vedanta” beginning at the Fourth section, called Maitreyi brahmaNa. He provides answers to many typical questions that some one new to Advaita philosophy is likely to ask. I trust Shanakara’s replies help satiate the curiosity of the novice. We shall recapitulate below some of the questions and Shankara’s answers thereon.

Q: If Advaita philosophy holds that brahman alone “IS’ and It is the only reality, there will be nobody to receive any teaching and profit by it. Is not such a teaching about Oneness then useless?

When the transcendent brahman is realized as the only existence, there is neither instruction nor the instructor nor the result of receiving the instruction, and therefore, the Upanishads are useless – it is a position we readily admit.

But until that is achieved, your position is wrong.

Q: I am already brahman, whether I know It or not; so, I don’t have to study Advaita.

If you urge so, even before brahman is realized by you, we reply, “No.” The highest secret name of “The Truth of truth” belongs only to the Supreme brahman. You have to “realize” It first before you take yourself to be brahman.

[Shankara deals with this question in a much more nuanced way at:2.2.1, taittirIya. bhAShya; 4.4.6, BUB; 2.5.15, BUB; 1.4.10, BUB; 1.3.14, kaTha B; etc.]

Q. What is “The Truth of the truth”?

We are all familiar with the “vital-force (or life-force – prANa).” It propels and moves everything in the world. “The whole of creation may be a kind of reality, no doubt, so far as it is being experienced by us, but the Absolute Self is the really real Reality behind this reality. The individual structure, the separate self, constituted of the senses and the mind, etc., is a relative reality, but the Self is the Absolute Reality. It is Absolutely Real because It does not change Itself, and is not subject to transcendence. It is not limited by the processes of time; It is not conditioned by space; It is not finitized by objects.  

Therefore, the Supreme Self is The Truth of that Truth.

Q:  Do the passages of the Upanishads clash with the authority of the ritualistic portion of the Vedas?

No, because they have a different meaning. The Upanishads establish the unity of brahman; they do not negate instructions regarding the means to the attainment of some desired object, or prevent persons from undertaking it. The scriptures neither hinder nor direct a person by force, as if he were a slave.

Q:  What is the result of knowing and realizing the Self?

A palpable result is the cessation of grief and delusion, indirectly brought about by the attainment of Knowledge.

Q:  You say, “the Supreme Self really has no parts or stands to other things in the relation of whole to a part. But don’t the shruti and smRti speak of the multitude of things arising from the Supreme Self like ‘Tiny sparks from fire’ (2.1.20, BU) and ‘A part of Myself, the eternal jIva in the world of jIva-s’ (15.7, BG)?

Not so, for, those passages are meant to convey the idea of Oneness. We notice in life that sparks of fire may be considered identical with fire. Similarly a part may be considered to be identical with the whole. That being the case, words signifying a modification (or part) of the Supreme Self, as applied to the individual self, are meant to convey its identity with the Self. Therefore, the passages setting forth the origin, continuity and dissolution of the universe are for strengthening the idea of the identity of the individual self with the Supreme Self. 

The mention in all Vedanta texts of the origin, continuity and dissolution of the universe is only to strengthen our idea of brahman being a homogeneous unity, and not to make us believe in the origin etc. as an actuality.

In ascertaining the true nature of brahman, men of wisdom should not think of It in terms of whole and part, or unit and fraction, or cause and effect. For the essential meaning of all the Upanishads is to remove all finite conceptions about brahman. Therefore, we must give up all such conceptions and know brahman to be undifferentiated like space.

Q:  Where is the Self which I have to realize?

In all Vedanta, it is the “Inner Self” which is put forward as the entity to be known, as ‘I am brahman,’ and never any external object like sound etc. (that is to say an observed percept through any of the senses), saying, ‘That is brahman.’

Similarly in the kauShItaki Upanishad, in the passage, ‘Do not seek to know about speech, know the speaker,’ etc. (3.8 etc.), it is the agent using speech etc. as instruments, which is put forward as the entity to be known.

Q:  How am I to know whether the secret name, “The Truth of the truth” pertains to the individual self, or whether it refers to some transcendent principle, the Supreme Self?

The unity of the self is a source of confusion even to scholars. Therefore, in order to facilitate the understanding of passages that deal with the Knowledge of brahman for those who seek It, we shall discuss the point as best as we can.

Since the word ‘Self’ has been used in all scriptures to denote brahman, and since it refers to the inner Self, and further the shruti passage, ‘He is the inner Self of all beings’ (2.1.4, muNDaka) shows the absence of a relative self other than the Supreme Self, as also the shruti texts, ‘One only without a second’ (6.2.1, chAn.), ‘This universe is but brahman‘ (2.2.12, muNDaka), ‘All this is but the Self’ (8.25.2, chAn.), it is proper to conclude the identity of the individual self with brahman.

We also conclude that the shruti passages setting forth the origin etc. of the universe must be for establishing the identity of the individual self and Supreme Self.

Q:  What is the nature of the Self?

The Self is without parts, devoid of activity and serene’ (6.19, shvetasvatara);

‘The Supreme Being is resplendent, formless, including both within and without, and birthless’ (2.1.2, muNDaka);

 ‘All-pervading like space and eternal,’ (, shata. brA.)

‘That great, birthless Self is nondecaying, immortal, undying’ (4.4.25, BU);

‘It is never born nor dies’ (1.2.18, kaTha; 2. 20, BG;)’;

It is undifferentiated,’ etc. (2. 25, BG);

‘It knows things in a general and particular way’ (1.1.9, muNDaka; 2.2.7, BU); 

‘It transcends hunger and thirst’ (3.5.1, BU);

‘Unattached, It is not attached to anything’ (3.9.26, BU);

‘That which living in all beings . . . . is the internal ruler and immortal’ (3.7.15, BU).

Q:  Please illustrate how my individual ‘self’ is identical to the Supreme Self.

Regarding this, the teachers of Vedanta narrate the following parable:

A certain prince was discarded by his parents as soon as he was born, and brought up in a fowler’s home. Not knowing his princely descent, he thought himself to be a fowler and pursued the fowler’s duties, not those of a king, as he would, if he were to have known himself to be such.

When, however, a very compassionate man, who knew the prince’s fitness for attaining a Kingdom, told him who he was – that he was not a fowler, but the son of such and such a King, and had by some chance come to live in a fowler’s home – he, thus informed, gave up the notion and the duties of a fowler and, knowing that he was a King, took to the ways of his ancestors.

Similarly, this individual self, which is of the same category as the Supreme Self, being separated from It like a spark of fire and so on, has penetrated this wilderness of the body, organs, etc., and, although really transcendent, takes on the attributes of the latter, which are relative, and thinks that it is the aggregate of the body and organs, that it is lean or stout, happy or miserable for it does not know that it is the Supreme Self.

But when the teacher enlightens it that it is not the body etc., but the transcendent Supreme brahman, then it gives up the pursuit of the three kinds of desires (for wealth, progeny and heaven) and is convinced that it is brahman. When it is told that it has been separated from the Supreme brahman like a spark, it is firmly convinced that it is brahman, as the prince was of his royal birth.

We know that a spark is one with fire before it is separated. Therefore, the examples of gold, iron and sparks of fire are only meant to strengthen one’s idea of the oneness of the individual self and brahman, and not to establish the multiplicity caused by the origin etc. of the universe.

For the Self has been ascertained to be homogeneous and unbroken Consciousness, like a lump of salt, and there is the statement, ‘It should be realized in one form only’ (4.4.20, BU).

If the Sruti wanted to teach that brahman has diverse attributes such as the origin of the universe, like a painted canvas, a tree, or an ocean, for instance, it would not conclude with statements describing It to be homogeneous like a lump of salt, without interior or exterior, nor would it say, ‘It should be realized in one form only.’

Q:  Does the shruti help me towards such a “realization”?

The role of shruti is merely to inform. The scriptures seek not to alter things, but to supply information about things unknown, as they are.

Actions, their factors and their results are things we naturally believe in: they are the creation of ignorance. All such relative conditions in the transcendent Self are only possible through the limiting adjuncts of “name and form.”

Believers in the Upanishads are unanimous on the point that they enjoin on us to think of the identity of the individual self with the Supreme Self.

In fact, ‘every day all the creatures attain this world that is brahman (in deep sleep), but they do not realize this’ (8.3.2, chAn.).

[Note: The answers above retain the original structure of expression as used by Shankara in his commentary at 2.1.20 (Trans: Swami Madhavananda) with as little change as possible. The answer to one of the questions, is adopted from Swami Krishnananda.] 

5 thoughts on “Shankara Answers Beginner’s Questions

  1. It is truly amazing how much of the basic Advaita information (concepts, doctrine and the core message as well as praxis) Shankara packed at 2.1.20 BUB (commentary). There is much more valuable information that can be culled from there.

    I did a little shabby job because of vision problems.
    Some re-ordering of the Questions, slight editing of language can help.
    Any Volunteers please?

    warm regards,

  2. It looks fine to me, Ramesam – and what a brilliant post! I wasn’t actually aware of this aspect of the bhAShya (smacked wrist!). Clearly it should be one of the first passages that everyone points to as being Shankara’s summary of the key points of Advaita. Why isn’t it??

    Did you write a precis of what the article is about in the relevant box before listing it? This ought to be one of the first pages that Google finds for anyone searching for ‘Shankara and Advaita’!

    Best wishes,

  3. Thank you, Dennis for the kind words.
    I agree that 2.1.20 BUB has a lot of information on the doctrine of Advaita at one place.

    May I sek your kind help re: the point you made in the second para of your comment. I find the Block editor is a bit tough for a blockhead like me!


  4. OK – Added the following: “Shankara’s answers to typical beginners’ questions about Advaita, summarized from his commentary on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.1.20.”

Comments are closed.