Q: As I work through the Brahma Sutras, and having read Alston’s ‘Shankara on Rival Views’, I have a nagging concern that all of the refutation of alternate theories is too self-contained. What I mean is that much of it seems like a straw-man setup, where Shankara defines his opponent’s views for them and then shreds those views. The objections are being written by the same author that is refuting those objections. I would like to find texts that carry the debate outside of the closed circle, so to speak. Say, for example, a Buddhist took exception to those refutations and wrote a compelling argument against them, and then a traditional Swami responded in kind. Are you aware of any more modern works along these lines? In particular, I would like to see Shankara’s logic analyzed by a scholar and compared to our modern updated view of logical argumentation, etc.
A: Are you sufficiently certain of the Advaita stance on all issues that you would want to look at critical appraisals? I haven’t come across any easy work that deals with these. If you are studying Brahmasutras now, there is a version which is fairly readable and actually occasionally funny (in a superior, knowing sort of way), which looks at the other commentaries and interpretations. It’s called ‘The Brahmasutras and their Principal Commentaries: A Critical Exposition’ by B. N. K. Sharma. It’s in 3 volumes and almost certainly very expensive in the west. You can probably get it cheaper from India, though. Another book which I haven’t looked at is ‘A Critique of Vedanta’ by L. V. Rajagopal. It looks at the three Vedantic schools and applies Whitehead’s approach to philosophy to critically analyze them (so says the book cover!) It looks like a very serious read to me! The other book which might interest you is SSS’s (Satchidanandendra) book ‘The Method of the Vedanta: A Critical Account of the Advaita Tradition’. It looks at pre and post Shankara authors and endeavors to establish Shankara’s views as the correct ones. But it is a huge book of nearly 1000 pages and really not terribly readable. It is, however, translated by A. J. Alston so is at least understandable with some effort. But I can’t honestly actually recommend any of these. It’s up to you if you want to give any a try. From what you say, maybe the Rajagopal would serve your needs.
P.S. I have just checked, and the Sharma 3-volume work is available from Amazon.com for US$79.40. (Ridiculously, it is £89.99 in the UK but it is out of stock anyway.) ‘Method of the Vedanta’ is even more expensive (it is a big book!) – US$170.36 from Amazon.com but you can buy for only £20, new, in the UK from Shanti Sadan.
‘A Critique of Vedanta’ is only US$10.33 from Amazon.com.
Okay, here is your starter for 10 – your time starts now! (If you’re not familiar with this phrase, it relates to the quiz show ‘University challenge’, which was on British television for many years.)
The question is: how many states of consciousness are there?
I can almost see your mind tripping up and reading that question again. Surely, you will say, there are three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep. What can I possibly mean by querying this? Well, actually, depending upon how you answer this question, the number of states of consciousness could be two, three or five (or 4 ½) or you could argue that the very question is misconceived!
It is true that most of the scriptures refer to 3 states. If you have read my book ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’, you will know that it refers to jAgrat, svapna and suShupti. These three states are mithyA and the reality underlying them is called turIya. In the tattva bodha (attributed to Shankara), the question is asked: avasthAtrayaM kim? – What are the three states? Admittedly, this is a somewhat leading question but the answer is given: jAgratsvapnasuShuptyavasthAH – they are the waking, dream and deep sleep states. And it goes on to explain each in turn. Continue reading →
Proofs for adhyAsa
There are two shruti-based pramANa-s for adhyAsa , the first is ‘postulated’ and the second ‘inferred’.
Postulated The first takes an observed fact – for example I wake up one morning and find the road outside is flooded – and postulates an explanation for this – e.g. heavy rain occurred whilst I slept. Since I slept soundly, I have no direct knowledge of any rain but, without such a supposition, I have no reasonable way to explain the observed phenomenon. Other ‘unreasonable’ explanations may be put forward but the one suggested is the most plausible to the rational mind. In order to justify an improbable explanation, the more plausible must first be discredited. Since the observed fact can only be explained in this way, the explanation becomes a pramANa or valid means of knowledge. This pramANa is ‘perception-based’. as opposed to ‘shruti-based’. Shankara’s concept of adhyAsa is in fact a shruti-based ‘postulate’ since there is no mention of the subject in the veda-s themselves and it is in this way that it becomes a valid knowledge in its own right.
Just as this principle can be used to explain the flooded streets, shruti-based postulates can be used to explain that the ideas that we are mortal, doers and enjoyers are all due to error. For example, the kaThopaniShad (II.19) says ‘If the slayer thinks that he slays or if the slain thinks that he is slain, both of these know not. For It (the Self) neither slays nor is It slain.’ Also the gItA (V. 8) tells us that one who knows the truth understands that we do not act. We are not ‘doers’ or ‘killers’ or ‘killed’. Therefore, any statement such as ‘I am a doer’ or ‘I am an enjoyer’ must be an error, from shruti (and smR^iti) based postulate. Continue reading →
Objections to the theory
Other systems of philosophy claim that, although the rope-snake error is acceptable, the superimposition of anything onto the Atman is not possible. The argument is that any superimposition requires four conditions to be satisfied:
Perception. The object being covered must be directly perceivable, as is the rope in the rope-snake example. The Atman is not an object and cannot be perceived.
Incompletely known. The object must be incompletely known, as one is ignorant of the fact that the rope is a rope. In the case of the Atman , however, the advaitin accepts that the Atman is self-evident and always conscious – how can there be ignorance with regard to something that is self-evident?
Similarity. There must be some similarity between the actual object and its superimposition, just as a rope and snake have a basic similarity (one could not mistake the rope for an elephant, for example). But there is total dissimilarity between the Atman and anything else. E.g. Atma is the subject, anAtma is the object; Atma is conscious and all pervading, anAtma is inert and limited etc.
Prior experience. In order to make the mistake, we must have had prior experience of that which is superimposed. We could not see a snake where the rope is unless we knew what a real snake was. Whilst this is possible in the case of the rope-snake, it is not possible in the Atma–anAtma case because we would have to have prior experience of a ‘real’ anAtma and it is part of the fundamental teaching of advaita that there is no such thing; there is only the Atman.
Accordingly, in the case of the Atma–anAtma , not one of these four conditions is satisfied. Therefore superimposition of anAtma onto Atma, the fundamental cause of our error according to Shankara, is not possible – so says the objector. Continue reading →
Analogy of the Rope and the Snake
This example originates from the commentaries of gaudapAda on the mANDUkyaupaniShad. Seeing a rope in the dark, it is mistaken for a snake – an error or adhyAsa. We mistakenly superimpose the image of an illusory snake onto the real rope. In just such a way we superimpose the illusion of objects etc. upon the one Atman .
If there is total dark, we would not see the rope so could not imagine it to be a snake. Hence ‘ignorance is bliss’, as in deep sleep – there can be no error. Similarly, if there is total light we see the rope clearly – in complete knowledge, we know everything to be brahman. Knowledge is also bliss! The error occurs only in partial light or when the eyes are defective. Then there is partial knowledge; we know that some ‘thing’ exists. This part, that is not covered by darkness or hidden by ignorance is called the ‘general part’ and is ‘uncovered’ or ‘real’. That the ‘thing’ is actually a rope is hidden because of the inadequate light or knowledge. This specific feature of the thing, that it is a rope, is called the ‘particular part’ and is covered. In place of the covered part, the mind substitutes or ‘projects’ something of its own, namely the snake. Continue reading →
Inference Before inference can occur, there needs to be some valid data which is itself gathered directly or indirectly through direct perception. Otherwise, the inference could only be a speculation or imagination. For example one could not infer the age of the Moon just by looking at it and estimating it. Data must be collected first e.g. rocks could be brought back and carbon dated.
Four aspects are involved in the process of inference. These are the subject or ‘locus’ of the discussion, the objective or ‘conclusion’ (that which is to be inferred or concluded), a ‘basis’ for the argument and finally an ‘analogy’. An example given in the scriptures is the inference that there is a fire on a mountain because one is able to see smoke there, just as might happen in a kitchen. Here, the mountain is the ‘locus’; to infer that there is a fire on the mountain is the ‘conclusion’; the ‘basis’ is that smoke can be seen and the ‘analogy’ is that when one sees smoke in the kitchen, it is invariably associated with fire (this is in the days before electricity!). Continue reading →
Notes on Shankara’s examination of the nature of ‘Error’ in the introduction to the brahmasUtra.
adhyAsa is possibly the most important concept in Advaita – certainly in Advaita as ‘formulated’ by Shankara, since he wrote an extended introduction to his commentary on the Brahmasutras on this topic. I wrote this article originally for Advaita Vision but (as far as I know) it is no longer available at that site so I am reproducing it here. It will be in 4 or 5 parts.
These notes are essentially a rewording, omitting most of the Sanskrit, of the notes provided by Achacrya Sadananda on the Advaitin List and I gratefully acknowledge his permission for this. In turn, he wishes that I acknowledge his own indebtedness to H.H. Swami Paramarthananda of Madras, himself a student of Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda. His lectures form the basis of these notes.
The brahmasUtra is the third of the so called ‘Three pillars of vedAnta‘, the first two being the upaniShad-s (shruti – the scriptures ‘revealed’ and not ‘authored’ by anyone) and the bhagavad gItA (smRRiti – the ‘heard’ scriptures passed down by memory). The brahmasUtra is a very terse and logical examination of the essential teaching of the upaniShad-s, seeking to show the nature of brahman and the superiority of the philosophy of vedAnta. It is usually studied with the help of a commentary or bhaShya, the best known being the one by Shankara. Continue reading →
Those who have read any of my books, or the brief biography that is available on this site and others, will know that I began my ‘philosophical investigations’ with the School of Economic Science, as it is known in the UK. And you will also know that I have commented frequently upon the misguided notions that were propagated by the school in the name of Advaita. One of the key misunderstandings that I had, which was not cleared for many years, despite reading widely and discussing Advaita with many people on the Internet, relates to ‘action’.
As usual, this was a Sankhyan idea effectively being passed off as belonging to Advaita. It was the notion that it is ‘the guNa that act’, or that action is a function of prakRRiti. In the first edition of ‘The Book Of One’, I actually had a chapter called ‘The Myth of Action’ and the first section of this was entitled ‘Only the guNa Act’. Here are several paragraphs from this:
“The three qualities of nature, the guna, of which all of nature is constituted, are in constant motion and this is the only ‘action’. Yes, the body acts – it is constituted of the three guna – but we do not. Here is a useful practical example of this: It may be that you cycle from time to time. I enjoy cycling in the New Forest, where I live – free exercise in beautiful surroundings and fresh air. However, there are a few hills along the routes, and sometimes you have to go up these rather than down. Many people just get off and walk their cycle up. Others take it as some sort of challenge and insist on trying to cycle to the top without having to dismount. When the going becomes hard, they make an extra mental effort, along the lines of ‘I am damn well going to get to the top, even if it kills me’! This is the hard way!Continue reading →
I came across this essay last week. I don’t actually remember writing it, although the file was dated Feb of this year! (My memory must be deteriorating faster than I thought!) Anyway, since everyone (who contributes these days) seems to be particularly interested in Consciousness and scientific views, it seemed a good idea to post it. Apologies if I have already posted it somewhere before…
Shankara’s Refutation of the Materialist
Seemingly, the most prevalent view today of the nature of consciousness is that it is a phenomenon that comes into existence when the brain reaches a certain level of complexity. To use the favored term, consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ of matter. In fact, this is not a novel idea; it has been around for a long time. An Indian philosopher with whom the theory is particularly associated is Charvaka, who lived around 600 BCE.
The materialist philosophy itself is called lokayata in Sanskrit, and this is the term used in the principal Vedantic text, the Brahmasutras. It is interesting to note that the term ‘lokayatika’ was effectively used by the eminent philosopher Shankara as an insult but nowadays would be regarded by most people as a compliment, since it literally means ‘someone experienced in the ways of the world’ – an indication, perhaps, of the spiritual depths to which Western society has sunk! Continue reading →
Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us ? It does not help to answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists. Also, it appears that even if one attains knowledge of self in one life, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, ie we are not really liberated from the brith-death cycle. The only benefit I do see in a life in which one attains knowledge of self is that one might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as we sail through good and bad times, even though we may experience physical pain.
A (Dennis): Self-knowledge removes Self-ignorance and it is that which makes us think we are limited, unhappy, doomed to old age and death. With Self-knowledge we realize that we are not human, living in an inhospitable world; we are brahman. The world appears as separate because of our ignorance. On gaining Self-knowledge, we realize that it’s substance is nothing but brahman.
From the perspective of the ignorant person, there is rebirth (possibly as a cockroach) and we are subject to karma. With Self-knowledge, we realize that there is no person, no birth or rebirth, no death, no creation.
The idea that knowledge is pointless is actually the main argument of the pUrvamImAMsika philosopher. They believe that only the karmakANDa portion of the Vedas is relevant – rituals that we have to perform in order to gain benefits. They say that the Upanishads etc are only supporting material to be meditated on. In the Brahmasutras, I.1.4, Vyasa effectively refutes all those philosophers who deny that brahman is the principal topic of the Vedas. But he does this with the single word ‘tu’ (tattu samanvayAt). Fortunately Shankara takes the opportunity to take up arms against pUrvamImAMsA. Whilst he agrees that knowledge in itself is often useless – we need actually to do something in order to gain some benefit – there is one situation in which ONLY knowledge bears fruit. That is when the problem is one of ignorance. The classic example is the rope mistaken for a snake. As soon as we find out that it is a rope, all our fears etc disappear. And our essential problem in life is that we believe we are a limited person. The knowledge that is to be gained from Advaita is that we are brahman – and that reveals that we have no real problems at all.