SSSS and Ignorance

One of the sticky points in the controversies that surrounded Satchidanandendra was whether there is a root ignorance: Mullavidya even in self-realized persons (normally, Advaitins or followers of Shankaracharya). When Satchidanandendra (SSSS) and his former mentor, Krishnaswamy Iyer went to consult Virupakaksha Shastry (an authority on the tradition of AV) with that end in mind, the latter pretended to make them believe or accept that a remnant of Prarabdha Karma or Avidya always remains, even in jñani-s[1]. After that encounter, SSSS and K. Iyer concluded after further reflection that ‘the Vyakdhyakaras (post-shankarites) were themselves the originators of that misconception’.

Subsequently, SSSS intensified his study of the Bhashyas for five years, during which time “he used to discuss and argue with reputed scholars with the intention of compiling a Sanskrit book called ‘Mullavidya Nirasa’ … which was finally published in 1929… there were hundreds of objections from every quarter… the battle of wits and attrition continued for the rest of his long life”.

An example of the above: a recent critic (Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian) has written: “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”[2]. 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: “

The 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.

[1] Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati  Swamiji – By D.B. Gangolli,  1997

[2] Review of ‘A New Approach to Understanding Advaita as Taught by Sankara Bhagavadpada’ – by A. Martin –‘Advaita Vision’, 2014.

5 thoughts on “SSSS and Ignorance

  1. Hi Martin,

    If you would like to explore the topic of Swami Satchidanandendra and avidyā further there are two excellent online papers you might wish to consult:

    ‘Avidyā: bhāva, bīja or mithyājñāna? or, the story of the eighteenth
    elephant’ by Jacqueline Suthren Hirst, written in 2019 for the centenary
    commemoration of the Swami’s controversial ‘Mūlāvidyānirasa’.


    ‘The Mulavidya Controversy Among Advaita Vedantins:
    was Shankara Himself Responsible?’ by S. K. Arun Murthi

    • I acknowledge and thank for his help, inspiration, and teaching, by the distinguished Advaitin Subhanu Saxena, whose teachings are the sum and substance of what follows:

      1. The teachings of the Vedānta would be useless if each of us had a wholly personal experience of reality.

      2. Sri Swamiji [SSSS] astutely showed us how teachings on ignorance as well as teachings such as the 3 states can be easily understood if we can relate it to that universal experience that is our true nature.

      3. Sri Swamiji helps the earnest student understand that the fundamental method of Vedānta can be understood through adhyāropa-apavāda.

      4. The Shruti teaches a temporary truth to remove a certain misconception and, when the misconception has been cleared, that teaching is discarded for the next temporary truth until nothing is left but Reality itself.

      5. Our ignorance is simply a wrong notion “ajňānam eva mithyadhīh” BUBV 1.4.1217. Our ignorance is something imagined and is notional, for knowledge can only remove a false notion, not something with some grade of existence “kalpyavidyāiva mat pakshe” SV 183a.

      6. Sri Swamiji pointed us in the direction of Suresvara to help us remove any misunderstandings of Shankara’s teachings,

      Swamiji showed us that a life dedicate to knowledge that is infused with compassion and the spirit of sacrifice is a life that prepares us to fully understand the highest truth when we hear directly the shruti texts such as tat tvam asi, Thou Art That.

      I hope this short article will encourage readers to not be swayed by views about him that are misconstrued at best and misrepresented at worst.

      My thanks are also to Ramesam, our colleague and friend.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Rieckert. I will read the first article you recommend today as possible. I already have the 2nd one (will re-read). I have a recent (2020 article by the distinguished Advaitin Subhanu Saxena which I would like to share with you and Dennis, but being still confidential, I will ask permission from him (today) to do that. I have another interesting article by him (with references to SSSS) which I can share here – this will do later today, Regards. Martin

  3. 13.8.16 Published in AV re SSSS, Shankara, Dennis, etc. Thank you Dennis for this thoroughly satisfying post which could be considered (even if that was not your actual intention) as a vindication of SSSS in the face of the frequent and bitter attacks he once – and even up to the present – suffered. Anyone can read what I had just written (and mostly copied) in ‘Mulavidya… III under ‘… Commendation rather than Condemnation’ related to the same book by Martha Doherty (and evidently against her own intentions, which is strange).

    In his recent and interesting book, ‘Nonduality’, David Loy blames Shankara for the unjustifiable notion (he calls it ‘a failure’) that ‘Maya “projects” the world of appearance… it is indeterminable and indefinable, [Shankara] being the originator of these notions, at least of avidya (a technical term when properly understood and equivalent to adhyasa)’.

    As I wrote elsewhere commenting on those statements by D. Loy, ‘In fact, the error of taking maya as a positive force operating in the empirical world comes from post-Shankara commentators, specifically Vacaspathi Misra and his Bhamati school. Although the Vivarana school also fell into some other errors, avidya is, from its perspective, “a positive something”, but not real (satya) since it can be annulled by knowledge. The doctrinal deviations concerning avidya and Maya have persisted up to the present time (as FOR EXAMPLE in the Revised Ed. of ‘A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, by John Grimes, 2009)’.

    It really seems peculiar that the whole ‘thing’ or problem turns around two (obviously not innocent) words, ‘positive’ and ‘force or power’.
    Even such celebrated work, ‘Vedanta-Sara’, together with the comments on it by two reputed authors, Sw. Nikhilananda and M. Hiriyanna have the same slant: ‘The Supreme Deity… through His own POWER of maya creates the entire universe… ‘ (Nikhilananda). ‘Maya which gives rise to Ishvara must also be equally unreal. By unreality we do not mean absolute falsehood, for this is inconceivable since the common background, so long as it exists at all, as also its source Maya, are experienced by Ishvara; and what is experienced cannot be unreal as… barren woman’s son… from the standpoint of Isvara or even from ours… [maya] is unreal… ajñana … (rope analysis)… It is not absence of apprehension but misapprehension; and that is the reason why it is described as POSITIVE or bhava-rupa in advaita… the two powers, etc.’ (Hiriyanna).

    Thus, as far as I know, only SSSS since the last several centuries … or since Suresvara! has interpreted rightly, or rather understood, Shankara concerning this subject – avidya-maya – as it is described by Shankara in his Bhasyas. What a wonder!

    Ramesam referred himself quite recently here to maya as an explanatory artifact ‘used to explain the creation (see Gaudapada Karika, IV – 58 and Sankara’s commentary thereon). Some authors compare maya to the operator ‘plus’ sign in an equation like Brahman plus thought is the world. Thus it has only a symbolical value. But look at the way ‘Maya’ is deified in Vivekachudamani, verse 108. She is described as “the power of the Lord”. She is without a beginning, is made up of the three gunas, and is superior to the effects (it produces). She can be inferred only by clear intellect from the effects. It is She who brings forth this whole universe. Vedanta, however, tenaciously points out the processes of objectification and reification by the mind and exhorts us to transcend it.’

  4. Rick prefacing his words as follows, “If you would like to explore the topic of Swami Satchidanandendra and avidyā further there are two excellent online papers you might wish to consult,” recommended the 2008 publication of S. K. Arun Murthi on mUlAvidyA. Perhaps, Muthi’s paper emerges out of his Ph.D. thesis work.

    I am curious what part of that paper or which arguments of Mr. Murthi, who sees Shankara as the cause for the controversy on the “root ignorance,” impressed Rick. At every assumption he makes and in each argument he posits, it’s as clear as daylight, how miserably Murthi failed to understand Shankara and Shankara’s teaching. After all, Shankara was an Acharya, (AcArya: swayam Acarati ; parAn AcArayati iti AcAryaH| — a preceptor by example and guide to others) who was Self-realized and trying to convey his incommunicable realization. He was not an arm-chair academic Advaitin trying to argue out with or convince a mind steeped in duality and dualistic causal relationships on its terms. Simply put, the Advaitic Oneness dawns ONLY when that dualistic mind ceases ( or expressed in another way, the mind completely calms down (upasama))!

    Overall, Murthi’s paper comes out to be very inane and one that can be easily forgotten, IMHO. In contrast, Dr. J. Hirst’s publication compares the utility of the concept of ‘ignorance’ to that of the 18th elephant in a fascinating story of a practical and enjoyable math trick. It captures the heart of Shankara’s teaching brilliantly.


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