Who is a ‘tattvadarshI’?

The final goal of all the seekers on the Advaitic path is the realization of the nameless formless and featureless “tat” (That), “like It really is,” free from the distortions and aberrations introduced by the perceptual apparatus (the normal ‘vision’) we are accustomed to in our day-to-day life. Many a seeker, though very endowed, intelligent and well-read in scriptures, often finds it difficult to discern between one’s own true intuitive grasp of the Ultimate Advaitic Truth and mere intellectual decipherment of the verbal content of the teaching. Bhagavad-Gita highlights this fact eminently when it says:

मनुष्याणां सहस्रेषु कश्चिद्यतति सिद्धये ।
यततामपि सिद्धानां कश्चिन्मां वेत्ति तत्त्वतः ॥
— 7.3, BG.

Meaning: Among thousands of men, one perchance strives for Perfection; even among those who strive and are perfect, only one perchance knows “me” (i.e. Pure Consciousness) in “true essence” ( तत्त्वतः ).

Shankara explains the meaning of the word ( तत्त्वतः ) as “like It Is” ( यथावत् ) i.e. in Reality, in Its essence. From this we can deduce that one who intuits the ineffable Reality in Its essence, like It is, is the tattvadarshI ( तत्त्वदर्शी ). S/he is the true Seer ( द्रष्ट ) of “That” which the 2.4.5, brihadAraNyaka Upanishad exhorts us to find through “listening to, reflecting on what is heard, and by deep contemplative meditation.

आत्मा वा अरे  * द्रष्टव्यः *  श्रोतव्यो मन्तव्यो निदिध्यासितव्यो मैत्रेय्यात्मनो वा अरे दर्शनेन श्रवणेन मत्या विज्ञानेनेदं सर्वं विदितम् ॥  — 2.4.5, B.U.

Meaning: The Self, my dear, should be * realized *  – should be heard of, reflected on and meditated upon. (Translation: Swami Madhavananda).

Bhagavad-Gita explains tattvadarshI in the Second Chapter to be:

नासतो विद्यते भावो नाभावो विद्यते सतः ।
उभयोरपि दृष्टोऽन्तस्त्वनयोस्तत्त्वदर्शिभिः ॥
— 2.16, BG.

Meaning: Of the unreal there is no Being; the Real has no nonexistence. But the nature of both these, indeed, has been realized by the seers of Truth (तत्त्वदर्शी ).

Shankara clarifies further:

एवम् आत्मानात्मनोः सदसतोः उभयोरपि दृष्टः उपलब्धः अन्तो निर्णयः सत् सदेव असत् असदेवेति, तु अनयोः यथोक्तयोः तत्त्वदर्शिभिः । तदिति सर्वनाम, सर्वं च ब्रह्म, तस्य नाम तदिति, तद्भावः तत्त्वम् , ब्रह्मणो याथात्म्यम् । तत् द्रष्टुं शीलं येषां ते तत्त्वदर्शिनः, तैः तत्त्वदर्शिभिः ।  — Shankara at 2.16, BGB.

Meaning: The nature, the conclusion (regarding the nature of the Real and the unreal) that the Real is verily real, and the unreal is verily unreal; of both these indeed, of the Self and the non-Self, of the Real and the unreal, as explained above; (dRShTah), has been realized thus; (tattva-darshibhih), by the seers of Truth.

tat‘ is a pronoun (sarvanAma, lit. name of all) which can be used with regard to all. And all is brahman. And Its name is ‘tat.’ The abstraction of ‘tat’ is tattva, the true nature of brahman. Those who are apt to realize this are tattva-darshinah, seers of Truth.  (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda).

In order to give us a feel of who is NOT a tattvadarshI (अ – तत्त्वदर्शी ), Shankara writes at 2.38, Gaudapada kArikA on mANDUkya as follows;

तत्त्वमाध्यात्मिकं दृष्ट्वा तत्त्वं दृष्ट्वा तु बाह्यतः ।
तत्त्वीभूतस्तदारामस्तत्त्वादप्रच्युतो भवेत् ॥  —  2.38, GK.

Meaning:  Examining the Reality in the context of the individual and in the external world, one should become identified with the Reality, should have his delight in Reality, and should not deviate from Reality.

Shankara comments:

यथा अतत्त्वदर्शी कश्चित्तमात्मत्वेन प्रतिपन्नश्चित्तचलनमनु चलितमात्मानं मन्यमानः तत्त्वाच्चलितं देहादिभूतमात्मानं कदाचिन्मन्यते प्रच्युतोऽहमात्मतत्त्वादिदानीमिति, समाहिते तु मनसि कदाचित्तत्त्वभूतं प्रसन्नमात्मानं मन्यते इदानीमस्मि तत्त्वीभूत इति ;

न तथा आत्मविद्भवेत् , आत्मन एकरूपत्वात् , स्वरूपप्रच्यवनासम्भवाच्च । सदैव ब्रह्मास्मीत्यप्रच्युतो भवेत्तत्त्वात् , सदा अप्रच्युतात्मतत्त्वदर्शनो भवेदित्यभिप्रायः ; शुनि चैव श्वपाके च’ (5.18, BG) ‘समं सर्वेषु भूतेषु’ (13.27, BG)  इत्यादिस्मृतेः ॥   — Shankara at 2.38, GK.

Meaning:  (One should) have one’s delight only in the Self, and not in anything external like one lacking in realization, who accepts the mind as the Self, and thinks the Self to be changing in accordance with the changes of the mind, or at times accepts the body etc. to be the Self and thinks, “I am now alienated from Reality, that is the Self,” and when at times the mind become concentrated, who thinks himself to be united with Reality and in peace under the belief, “I am now identified with Reality.”

The Knower of the Self should not be like that, because, the nature of the Self is ever the same and it is impossible for anything to change its nature; and one should be forever apracyutah, unwavering from Reality, under the conviction, “I am brahman,” that is to say, he should ever have the Consciousness of Reality that the Self, in accordance with such smRti texts as “(The enlightened man) views equally a dog or an outcast” (5.18, BG), “He sees who sees the Supreme Lord) existing equally in all beings (13.27, BG). (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda).

Advaita Vedanta holds a tattvadarshI very highly because only s/he can be a competent and effective teacher of the Non-dual message of Oneness. Bhagavad-Gita says:

तद्विद्धि प्रणिपातेन परिप्रश्नेन सेवया ।
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं ज्ञानिनस्तत्त्वदर्शिनः ॥  — 4.34, BG. 

Meaning:  Know this by (total body) prostration, by enquiry, by service; those men of Wisdom, who have realized the Truth, will teach thee wisdom.

Shankara emphasizes the point of a tattvadarshi only being (chosen to be) the teacher as he writes;

ज्ञानवन्तोऽपि केचित् यथावत् तत्त्वदर्शनशीलाः, अपरे न ; अतो विशिनष्टि तत्त्वदर्शिनः इति । ये सम्यग्दर्शिनः तैः उपदिष्टं ज्ञानं कार्यक्षमं भवति नेतरत् इति भगवतो मतम् ॥  — Shankara at 4.34, BG.

Meaning:  Some only, but not all, know as well as realize the truth. By this the Lord means to say that that Knowledge alone which is imparted by those who have realized the truth and no other knowledge can prove effective.

kaTha Upanishad gives further support:

न नरेणावरेण प्रोक्त एष सुविज्ञेयो बहुधा चिन्त्यमानः ।
अनन्यप्रोक्ते गतिरत्र नास्ति अणीयान्ह्यतर्क्यमणुप्रमाणात् ॥  — 1.2.8, kaTha Upa.

Meaning: The Self is not certainly adequately known when spoken of by an inferior person; for It is thought of variously. When taught by one who has become identified with It, there is no further cognition with regards to It. For, It is beyond argumentation, being subtler even than the atomic quantity. (Trans: Swami Gambhirananda).

Shankara observes at this mantra: “When the Self is spoken of by a teacher who has become identified with brahman that he speaks of, there is no non-comprehension or non-realization. To this hearer, the realization, “I am That (Self),” does come, just as it did in the case of the teacher. This is the idea.

Summing up the various issues, Shankara succinctly defines who a tattvadarshI is in his introduction to the Chapter 4 of Gaudapada kArikA. He says:

ज्ञानज्ञेयज्ञातृभेदरहितं परमार्थतत्त्वदर्शन … | Shankara at 4.1, GK.

Meaning:  (One who has realized) the Ultimate Reality, characterized by the identity of the knower, knowledge and the object of knowledge. (Trans: Swami Nikhilananda).

21 thoughts on “Who is a ‘tattvadarshI’?

  1. Dear Ramesam,

    I think we may have had a similar discussion before but here goes:

    You still seem to have the notion that jñāna does not come ‘merely’ from śravaṇa-manana and that one has to ‘do’ something additional in order to ‘experience’ Brahman or to somehow ‘convert’ the ‘intellectual’ knowledge into something more ‘real?’ (I deduce this from your seemingly derogatory phrase “mere intellectual decipherment of the verbal content of the teaching”.) I have refuted all these ideas in depth in Vol. 1 of ‘Confusions’, with ample supporting quotations from Ṥaṅkara and scriptures.

    The reason that it is difficult to realize Brahman is that one needs to be prepared – i.e. śravaṇa-manana, as you point out. Most people (even most seekers) are not prepared. The would-be seeker needs to prepare him/herself and find a qualified teacher. All this will take a long time and require total dedication. It is only in that sense that it is ‘difficult’ and few actually stay the course. Thus, it is ‘rare’ for anyone to realize the Self. But, if prepared, the gaining of the knowledge IS mokṣa. There is no ‘intellectual’ versus ‘intuitive’. When you get it, you’ve got it!

    I disagree with your translation of tattvataḥ in BG 7.3. Tattvatas means ‘in truth’, ‘in reality’, i.e. ‘really’ in common parlance. In context, it means ‘only one (amongst those who strive for perfection) ACTUALLY knows me’. It has nothing to do with the ‘essence’ of Brahman.

    The word siddha means one who has attained his/her objective. The objective of the seeker is to gain mokṣa. So the effective translation appears to be that ‘even amongst those who have gained mokṣa, hardly anyone really gains mokṣa”. Clearly this makes no sense. Ṥaṅkara explains this by saying that someone who is totally committed to sādhana catuṣṭaya sampatti śravaṇa manana is already ‘as good as’ (siddhānām) liberated, in the sense that it is a guranteed outcome if the path is followed religiously.

    The other aspect I would like to challenge is your final quotation. Gauḍapāda’s kārikā 4.1 is in the nature of a maṇgala śloka – he is offering up a prayer to Nārāyaṇa to approve successful completion of the study. Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu) can hardly be considered to be one who has ‘successfully achieved mokṣa’. Here is how I commented on this kārikā in ‘A-U-M: Awakening to Reality’:

    In K4.1, Gaudapada offers up prayers ‘to the one who is the greatest amongst all bipeds’, who is effectively the first guru, being (already) fully enlightened. Shankara assumes that Gaudapada is talking about Lord Narayana (nārāyaṇa), which is one of the names for Vishnu…

    There is a subtle difference between the already-known Self-knowledge of the first teacher and the ‘realized’ Self-knowledge of everyone else, all of whom are disciples of a teacher. This is that, from the point of view of everyone else, what is learned from the guru is that I, the jīvātman, am really identical with paramātman. What is already known by the first teacher, however, is that I, the paramātman, am identical with jīvātman.

    Best wishes,

  2. [Dennis says] “The reason that it is difficult to realize Brahman is that one needs to be prepared – i.e. śravaṇa-manana, as you point out. Most people (even most seekers) are not prepared. The would-be seeker needs to prepare him/herself and find a qualified teacher. All this will take a long time and require total dedication. It is only in that sense that it is ‘difficult’ and few actually stay the course. Thus, it is ‘rare’ for anyone to realize the Self.”

    Shankara’s Upadeshasahasri contains passages on the training of the seeker which underscore the difficulty and, for the vast majority, the impossibility, of embarking on the traditional path of liberation. The means to liberation are to be explained only to an aspirant who must: (1) be dispassionate toward all things noneternal (since those are attainable by means other than knowledge); (2) have abandoned the desire for sons, wealth, and worlds; (3) have entered the state of a wandering ascetic (sannyasin) endowed with tranquility of mind (shama) and self-control (dama); (4) possess the qualities of a student as defined in the Vedas; (5) be a Brahmin who is both internally and externally pure; (6) be of a suitable caste, profession, behavior, knowledge, and family; and (7) approach his teacher in the prescribed manner (Upad II.1.2). Following the personal stage-of-life (shrama) and class (varna) duties would also be assumed prior to this instruction, although one must give up these duties and become a wandering ascetic who abandons all family and social ties as a prerequisite to enlightenment (BSB III.4.20). Once initiated to the path, there are five prescriptions: (1) abstaining from injury, lying, theft, sex, and possessions; (2) austerities (tapas); (3) concentration of the mind (samadhana); (4) emaciation of the body; and (5) performance of the obligatory rituals and sacrifices (nityakarma) to remove past hindrances (Upad I.17.21-23).

    Elsewhere, Shankara set forth a fourfold discipline (sadhana) for qualifying to inquire into brahman. The aspirant must: (1) possess the ability to discriminate between what is real and what is only apparently real; (2) have renounced all desire to enjoy the present and future fruits of his actions; (3) have acquired tranquility of mind, self-control, dispassion (uparati), endurance (titiksha), concentration of mind, and faith (shraddha); and (4) yearn for release (This last requirement is still a form of desire—“true” or “real” desires replacing the desire for worldly matters. But it too must be overcome on the path.) (BSB I.1.1). Shankara also noted the need for yogic meditation to calm the mind and to subdue the senses as a prerequisite for knowledge (e.g., BSB I.4.1, III.4.26-27, 47-51; BUB III.2.22-30; BGB IV.38-39). The state of extreme concentration (samadhi) is also valued (BSB II.3.39). But since nescience cannot be removed by any experience, duality reappears after any concentration experience. Purifying the mind, however, is necessary since knowledge appears only when the mind becomes as clean as a mirror (Upad I.17.22). This prepares the mind so that when one hears the knowledge portion of the Vedic scriptures (i.e., the Upanishads), the insight of enlightenment arises.

  3. A very useful summary, Rick – and valuable references! Just one quibble at the end, and I’m sure you did not mean this (it’s just my pedantic mind always on the look out for wording that might confuse a seeker): knowledge does not simply ‘appear’ when the mind has been suitably prepared. It has to be acquired through shravaNa and probably questioned through manana before it becomes certainty in the mind of the hearer.

    Best wishes,

  4. Thanks, Dennis. Is a pedantic mind compatible with the requisite pure mind? If not, you may be setting a bad example for your readers. For those seekers who are taken aback and/or discouraged by Shankara’s highly restrictive social agenda (he was essentially a conservative and did little to alter the Brahmanical elitism of the Vedanta. Indeed, he added a restriction that made the tradition even more exclusive. For him, only a select few male Brahmins were eligible for the path of knowledge) but are nonetheless determined to secure their slice of the advaitic pie, the words of a contemporary advaitin, Anantanand Rambachan, are relevant: “Advaita reflection and scholarship cannot limit itself to the clarification of Sankara’s interpretations. These interpretations must also be critically evaluated in order for the tradition to be relevant and creative. It is problematic to assume that Sankara was immune from historical influences, cultural presuppositions and his stage in life as a renunciant. The latter is particularly important since renunciation traditionally implied specific attitudes to the world, community and family that inform his reading of texts and the possibilities of meaning. A renunciant brings different questions and concerns to these texts than a householder, and the renunciant reading of the Upanisads has been the dominant one. The traditional reverence for Sankara and his deified position in the Advaita lineage ought not to exclude critical questions and historical inquiry.”


    • Dear Rick,

      I can very well agree with your implied suggestion that a highly analytical and pedantic mind may not always count as a “pure mind free from all sorts of vAsanAs and pratibandhaka-s”; a “pure, unbiased, balanced and open (no agenda) mind” is a pre-requsite for the pursuit of Advaita Vedanta. A pedantic mind, OTOH, tends to imprison all words and their meanings within rigid iron shutters. The Vedantic lexicon, in contrast, allows a vast freedom, flexibility and fluidity in the usage of words giving primacy to their ability to communicate “the ineffable.”

      Sadly, however much I wish not to contradict you with regard to the other point you made, I am unable to go along with your suggestions that:
      i) Shankara had a highly restrictive social agenda;
      ii) He was essentially a conservative and did little to alter the Brahmanical elitism of the Vedanta; and,
      iii) Indeed, he added a restriction that made the tradition even more exclusive.

      “No; No; No” is the answer with respect to every one of those statements.

      You can find Shankara declaring that The Knowledge of Self is available to all, without exceptions, at many places in his bhAShya-s. What Shankara and the prevailing social creed said was that the performance of Vaidika karma kANDa is not available to all. They did not restrict even the “upAsana krama-s.”

      Eligibility for following and performing the “Vaidika karma” (sacrificial rituals) was restricted as it needed certain very strict pre-requisite preparations and strict procedures.

      Finally, neither shruti nor Shankara did say that Self-knowledge is available ONLY for renunciates. The muNDaka Upanishad (e.g. 1.1.3), as you yourself know, lists a householder in the lineage of transmitting the Advaitic Wisdom. Unlike the contemporary self-aggrandizing Swamis, see what Sage Yajnavalkys did at the end of 4.5.15, BU in the pursuit of Advaitic Wisdom. He just left the house without leaving a forwarding address! That’s what one finds with the dawn of the true “Understanding of the Self-knowledge.” One fully realizes that it is an impossibility, exceptions apart, to have to live in a world of interactions and obligations and still be an Advaitin.


      • Ramesam, thanks for your comments. Reasonable men can agree to disagree. I’ll add just a bit more. For Shankara, the yoga of knowledge and the path of world renunciation were one and the same. Knowledge, he says, is for “the Paramahamsa mendicants, whose life is focused on Brahman only.” (BGB 3.3). It involves a life of constant “abiding in Brahman” (brahma-samstha). (BSB 3.4.20. The term comes from CU 3.23.1: “He who dwells in Brahman attains immortality” (brahmasamstho ‘mrtatvam eti). This means, says the master, utter immersion (parisamapti) in Brahman and the absence of all other activity. Those in the active life have scripturally ordained duties to perform; to omit them would be to incur sin. A life of total contemplative absorption is impossible for them. The mendicant, on the other hand, has formally renounced all such action. “The duties that he does have-tranquility, restraint, etc.-are conducive to abiding in Brahman, not opposed to it.” Although it implied the transcendence of all social ties, sannyasa was itself a highly institutionalized state of life. It had to be entered through a prescribed rite, “according to rule” (yatha-viddhi), under the sponsorship of an established preceptor. While it pointed to a state beyond all social restriction, the institution as it developed in orthodox circles did not avoid the spirit of Brahmanical elitism. According to the tradition of which Shankara was a preeminent spokesman, only male Brahmins were eligible for sannyasa. (See his commentary on BU 3.5.1 and BU 4.5.15. According to UpadeshasahasrI 2.1.2, the student of Advaita should be both a Brahmin and a paramahamsa). In his commentary on BU 3.5.1 and 4.5.15, Shankara states bluntly that only Brahmins, not Kshatriyas or Vaisyas, are qualified for renunciation. The medieval exponents of religious law (dharma-sastra), for the most part, concur in this opinion. This issue was not without controversy, however, and indeed Sureshvara left a record of his disagreement with his master on this point. (See his Varttika on Shankara’s commentary on BU 3.5.1.) Nevertheless, Shankara’s order of renunciates, the dashanamis, followed this rule strictly until the late medieval period, when certain orders admitted members of the warrior caste to defend the monks against militant Muslims. (see P. V. Kane, The History of Dharma sastra vol. II, pt. 2, pp. 942-944). Even in the late 16th century, the great Advaitin Madhusudana Sarasvatl was arguing strenuously and at length for the validity of this restriction. Of the ten dashanami orders, four are today still open to Brahmins only.

  5. Thanks Dennis for your observations.

    Let me first join you in conveying my wholehearted appreciation for the comprehensive and very useful Comment posted by Rick on the “Prior Preparation” required before an earnest seeker embarks upon a study of the Advaita Vedanta. Hardly anything needs to be or can be added to what Rick wrote.

    With respect to the various other points made by you, I shall attempt here to briefly mention my own understanding.

    1. Intellectual decipherment vs Im-mediate intuitive realization:

    My contention is merely that these two are distinct positons. I did not suggest or imply any formulaic relationship between the two.
    The former happens within an environment of ‘tripuTi’ prevailing and the latter happens where the triad is absent.

    As Shankara discusses at 4.1.1-2, BSB, indeed, rare are the individuals like you who can really “get IT” just by hearing once; a vast majority (manda mAdhyamika) of seekers have to go through a process of ‘repetition’ in order to “culminate in the intuitive realization of Brahman; for hearing etc. fulfil the~ purpose of producing a (tangible) perceptible result in this case when they
    culminate in realization through repetition, even as husking etc.”

    And at 4.1.2, BSB, he comments: “[N]othing is illogical about facts directly perceived. It is a matter of experience that though the meaning may be vaguely apprehended from a sentence uttered only once, people understand it fully after removing progressively the false ideas standing in the way, through a process of sustained consideration.”

    I shall not labor more on this issue because, as you also said, we did discuss these things in the past.

    2. Translation of 7.3, BG:

    Let me clarify that I did not give my translation. The translation cited by me was by Alladi M. Sastri.
    I only amplified on the word “me” occurring in the second line of the verse based on Shankara’s commentary where he used the word यथावत् to explain तत्त्वतः |

    3. Re: 4.1, GK:

    The actual line written by Shankara at the end of his commentary at 4.1, GK is:

    उपदेष्टृनमस्कारमुखेन ज्ञानज्ञेयज्ञातृभेदरहितं परमार्थतत्त्वदर्शनमिह प्रकरणे प्रतिपिपादयिषितं प्रतिपक्षप्रतिषेधद्वारेण प्रतिज्ञातं भवति ॥

    Meaning: “Under the garb of this salutation to the teacher, it is suggested that the purpose of this Chapter is to establish, through a refutation of the opposite views, the philosophy of the Supreme Reality that is devoid of the distinctions of knowledge, knowable and knower.” (Trans: Sw-G).

    I don’t think I need to say more.


  6. Hi Rick,

    I do agree that ‘pedantic’ is not always a good thing! But my concern in these situations is that people (who know) say what they mean and are not so ‘sloppy’ with their language that they risk giving the wrong message.

    The example I queried is a good one. What you said clearly implied that performing sAdhana chatuShtaya was sufficient to gain enlightenment; that once completed, ‘knowledge’ would magically appear. Probably very few would be likely to interpret it in that way but nevertheless…

    I agree that Shankara makes lots of statements implying that saMnyAsa is necessary if one wants to gain mokSha. I have written quite a lot on the subject in ‘Confusions 1’ (and had several discussions here with Venkat in the past). My understanding is that, given that the mental preparation you have outlined above is a necessary prerequisite for gaining Self-knowledge, the lifestyle of the renunciate is clearly best suited to this! The fact that gRRihastha-s are referred to as enlightened in the scriptures shows that it is not a sine qua non. Also, it is made overwhelmingly clear that enlightenment comes from Self-knowledge alone; the implication being that it makes no difference what stage of life one happens to be in.

    Best wishes,

    • [Dennis says] “What you said clearly implied that performing sAdhana chatuShtaya was sufficient to gain enlightenment; that once completed, ‘knowledge’ would magically appear. Probably very few would be likely to interpret it in that way but nevertheless”

      Hi Dennis,

      To be clear, I was offering a partial translation of the specific verse I referenced from Shankara’s Upadeshasahasri (“knowledge appears only when the mind becomes as clean as a mirror”) and no other claim was implied. Other translators I’m familiar with e.g. Swami Jaganandanda, Swami Paramarthananda, Sengaku Mayeda, V. Narasimhan, construe Shankara as saying here (Upad I.17.22) that knowledge is ‘revealed’, ‘manifests’, ‘shines’, ‘shines forth’ when the mind becomes purified, but none think Shankara is saying knowledge is ‘acquired’, which is a text for another sermon.


  7. Hi Rick,

    Please accept my (partial) apology, then! 😉

    I say ‘partial’ because the previous verse does enjoin us to ‘pursue knowledge’, the clear implication being that we have to seek knowledge AS WELL as clarifying the mind through SCS. Providing the mind is purified, the (imparted) knowledge will then be effective.

    Obviously you will tell me if you disagree with this understanding. But, if so, could you explain how this knowledge miraculously arises without the usually accepted shravaNa manana.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Dennis,

      Of course I don’t disagree. Shravana, manana, etc. As the song says, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be”. By the way, are you treating “magically” and “miraculously” as synonyms or simply as alternative verbal strategies for trying to disparage an idea?


      • Hi Rick,

        Synonyms – I was just thinking of words to highlight the ‘uncaused appearance’ that was suggested by your comment. I can see that this comes across as sarcastic – something that I frequently criticize in others. So my apologies.

        Best wishes,

  8. Rick

    On qualifications for knowledge, I can’t recollect the source of the verse wherein a non-Brahmin student goes to a teacher for knowledge, and when asked if he is a Brahmin, answers honestly no. But the teacher treats him as qualified because of his honesty.

    With regard to your references . . .

    BU3.5.1, refers to a Brahmana, a knower of Brahman, rather than a Brahmin by caste.The latter part of the verse talks about a Brahmana being a panditya (having intellectually knowledge), but that he only becomes a ‘true’ Brahmana when he has achieved mouna (stability in the knowledge of Brahman). Sankara also writes “It is through the knowledge of Brahman that renunciation takes place”. So for Sankara only a Brahmana – a knower of Brahman (rather than a Brahmin) – is alone qualified for renunciation.

    It seems to me that Suresvara in his vartika is actually just clarifying that Brahmana applies to the three castes.

    BU 4.5.15, also refers to the knower of Brahman for whom everything has become the Self – clearly not referring simply to a Brahmin by caste.

    Finally, Upadesa Sahasri 1.2, that refers to a ‘pure Brahmin’. Alston in his translation, clarifies that this should not be interpreted in purely caste terms, citing BSB 3.4.38, where Sankara quotes Manu Smrti 2.87, “whoever practices universal benevolence and friendliness is a Brahmin”.

    And in BSB 3.4.38, Sankara concludes “nothing stands in the way of widowers and others also becoming qualified for pursuing knowledge”.

    • One other point in relation to BU4.5.15, and your related statement “only male Brahmins were eligible for sannyasa”. This verse is taken from Yajnavalkya instructing Maitreyi his wife, on Self-knoweldge, and Sankara’s commentary takes this further into discussing the need for renunciation.

      As far as I am aware, neither the upanishad nor Sankara, goes on to clarify that Matireyi is not qualified for knowledge, or for renunciation???

    • [Venkat says] ”On qualifications for knowledge, I can’t recollect the source of the verse wherein a non-Brahmin student goes to a teacher for knowledge, and when asked if he is a Brahmin, answers honestly no. But the teacher treats him as qualified because of his honesty.”

      Hi Venkat,

      Shankara discusses the story of Satyakama Jabala in a way that is both noteworthy and instructive. Neo-Vedantins usually consider this story of a young man who does not know who his father was and is classified by his teacher Haridrumata Gautama as a Brahmin by virtue of his honesty to be an example of an ethical, characterological, nonhereditary view of the varna system. Shankara, on the other hand, does not interpret Satyakama’s honesty as the cause and defining factor of his brahminess, but as a mere indicator of his hereditary legitimate membership in the Brahmin caste. See also BSB 1.3.37. Shankara presupposes that the varna system is based upon birth and physical family membership, and he makes it clear that the metaphysical unity of the real cannot in any way be taken as a premise of social and religious equality in an empirical sense. To support his position, Shankara cites a number of passages from the shruti and the smrti; and he refers approvingly to the frequently cited rule in Gautama’s Dharmashastra which states that a shudra who illegitimately listens to Vedic texts should have his ears filled with molten tin or varnish (trapu, jatu).

      All the best

    • Rick

      Thanks for the BSB ref 1.3.37; it is unequivocal about Sudra not being qualified for `Vedic instruction, because they cannot take up the sacred thread. The only partially redeeming feature is that it does allow that Sudras can gain Knowledge through Puranas and the like.

      From the text, it is not clear if this is Sankara falling in with the prevailing unfortunate customs of India re: Sudras.

      Best wishes.

      • Hi Venkat,

        While Shankara does allow that shudras may gain liberating knowledge by hearing through texts that are secondary in status and authority to the Vedas, such as the Itihasa and Purana, one must still wonder about the reality of shudras having access to liberating knowledge through secondary texts, since the control of these texts would still remain in the hands of brahmins, and shudras would continue to be subservient and dependent.

        BSB 1.3.38 should make it clear that Shankara endorsed the prevailing attitudes and practices vis-à-vis shudras:

        “This is another reason why the Sudra has no right: By the Smirti he is debarred from hearing, studying, and acquiring the meaning of the Vedas. The Smirti mentions that a Sudra has no right to hear the Vedas, no right to study the Vedas, and no right to acquire the meaning of the Vedas (and perform the rites). As for prohibition of hearing, we have the text, “Then should he happen to hear the Vedas, the expiation consists in his ears being filled with lead and lac”, and “He who is a Sudra is a walking crematorium. Hence one should not read in the neighborhood of a Sudra”. From this follows the prohibition about study. How can one study the Vedas when they are not to be recited within his hearing? Then there is the chopping off of his tongue if he should utter the Vedas, and the cutting of the body to pieces if he should commit it to memory. From this it follows by implication that the acquisition of meaning and acting on it are also prohibited, as is stated in, “Vedic knowledge is not to be imparted to a Sudra”, and “Study, sacrifice, and distribution of gifts are for the twice-born” [i.e. brahmins].

        It’s understandably concerning to some compassionate modern-day Advaitins that the greatest historical exponent of the teaching about the identity and sameness of self in all beings remained untroubled by social inequality. Then again, perhaps the contradiction is really illusory and, as Shankara believed, the metaphysical unity of the real cannot in any way be taken as a premise of social and religious equality in an empirical sense. First, that “brahman is atman” does not mean that persons (jivas) in the phenomenal world are identical to each other. There is no identity of the surface phenomena within the realm of multiplicity like the morning star being the evening star. The differences within the “dream” realm remain intact—if you have a headache, it does not mean I have one in any way. Different people and objects are not one in that sense: I am not you, but we emerge from, or in our beingness are identical to, one unchanging underlying beingness. The separate ego within the “dream” realm that we normally identify with is not the reality behind all phenomena. That is, the underlying beingness is singular, but the “dream” phenomena remain distinct from each other. Thus, harming you (one jiva in the “dream”) does not mean that I (another jiva) am necessarily harming myself. Second, under this interpretation, individuals are not real in any sense. What is in fact real (Brahman) is unharmable no matter what we do (Katha Up. II.18-19). In no way do you harm the real “you” (brahman/atman) by harming another phenomenal person (jiva). Conversely, non-injury or compassion is equally groundless: helping another person (one jiva) does not necessarily help yourself (another jiva), and what is real about each of us (brahman/atman) cannot be helped or affected. In short, there is no reality to help or, by the same reasoning, any reality that could help. If we accept the source of being as the only reality, there are no real persons to help. The metaphysics simply does not permit the existence of another real person to love. So too, nothing a “dream” self does could even in principle affect what is actually real: if all that is real is the source, then nothing phenomenal can affect the root. Thus, the moral consequence of the factual claim that the world has the status of a dream is dire: how we treat other characters in a “dream” is irrelevant. No actions are any morally better or worse than any others since nothing real is affected. This can only lead to moral indifference. So too, if we are all only Brahman, there is no reality separate from ourselves whose interests we can take into account. Thus, even if I could aid or hurt Brahman, there would still be no other- regardingness in my actions but only the self-interest of helping my true reality. That is, that I should not harm you because I would thereby be harming myself is not a moral motive but only prudent “enlightened self-interest.” So too, helping you would only be helping myself—there is no “other” to help. Thus, as Paul Deussen was forced to conclude, when the knowledge of Brahman has been gained, “every action and therefore every moral action has been deprived of meaning”.


    • Hi Rick

      It is unfortunate that Sankara did not take the philosophy of Advaita to its logical and coherent conclusion regarding “others”.

      Whilst I understand your conclusion of moral indifference (Krishna Menon draws a not dissimilar conclusion), I would point out passages such as BGB12.13:
      “He hates nothing, not even that which causes him pain. He regards all beings as himself. He is friendly and compassionate. He is full of compsssion for the distressed i.e., he has offered security of life to all beings, he is a samnyasin. He does not regard anything as ‘mine’ and is free from ·egoism, from the notion of ‘I’. Pain and pleasure do not cause in him hatred and attachment. He remains unaffected when abused or beaten. He is alw~ys content ; he thinks he ·bas enough ·whether be obtains or not the means of bodily sustenance”.

      The point that many confuse in Advaita is believing that it is akin to the Berkeley view of subjective idealism. But thel thrust of Advaita is not just to see the world as a dream, but you yourself as part of that dream, and to detach yourself from that personal ego.

      As V S Iyer wrote:
      “in dream all the scenes and all the people are made of the same essence as yourself, they are as real as you are. Do not treat other people as mere ideas but your own self as real. If they are ideas, so are you. If you are real, so are they. Hence you must feel for them all just what you feel for yourself.”

      Karma yoga as per BG would say that this is the attitude, the sadhana one must take. And the ultimate conclusion – through jnana, and renunciation – is that if everything is a dream, there is nothing for ‘you’ to do, since there is no ;you’. Hence the conclusion that with knowledge no action (or possession) is possible apart from that action which is required for the bare maintenance of life; and even that is not important. Such a one is harmless; does not accumulate, covet, desire or fear anything. If a person crosses his path needing food, s/he is likely to give anything s/he has (which of course will be little).

      Imagine a world not based on accumulation and greed. The greatest help you can give the world is to lose your ego, your selfishness, your greed. ‘First do no harm’ as the Quakers say. When you have an ego, desires, advancement, possessions, you are inevitably part of a system that by its nature does harm.

      Morality is a concept of the West to provide cover for its voraciousness. As `Lao Tse wrote:
      38: When the way is lost, virtue appears
      When virtue is lost, kindness appears
      When kindness is lost, justice appears
      When justice is lost, ritual appears

      • Hi Venkat,

        Thanks for your comments. My remarks were limited to providing an explanation of the non-moral vision of Shankara’s Advaita. Since you refer to Laotze in connection with your statement that “Morality is a concept of the West to provide cover for its voraciousness”, I’ll add this. Other-regarding, i.e. moral, values are ascribed to the Way: compassion (ci) (Daodejing 8, 31, 67) or great humaneness (ren) (Zhuangzi 2, 12). The Way naturally gives itself, sustaining everything like a mother (Daodejing 3, 25, 34). It is like water, nourishing all and not competing (ibid.: 8). The Way of heaven/nature is to benefit others, not to injure them (ibid.: 81). Its impartiality is not indifference but an evenness that is beneficial to all. Assertive actions are not in conformity with the Way, but the Way does not judge. It benefits both good and bad people alike (ibid.: 62). Thus, the Way is impartially beneficial to all, and so the sage, who reflects the actions of the Way, is also impartially beneficial to all. As the enlightened wander free and at ease through the world, they will be naturally compassionate or humane, free of the confines of concepts or of the need to follow rules. They’ll assist in the spontaneous self becoming (ziran) of all beings through non-self-assertive action (wuwei). In addition, they follow the Way out of an other-regarding, i.e. moral, concern. The nonassertive yin-actions of “holding to the root” are, according to them, always the correct course of action, balancing the normal yang-actions of others. Once the enlightened are performing nonassertive and noncoercive actions, the compassion or great humaneness of the Way would prevail.

        I will also add that Mahayana bodhisattvas (be they from East or West) are paradigms of a moral life.


  9. A few quick short points / observations:

    1. I think Venkat is referring to the story of Satyakama Jabala who is mentioned at 4.4.1, chAn. Upanishad and also at 4.1.6, BU. We have a Jabala Upanishad too.

    2. “Caste system” was unknown to ancient India and no equivalent word for ‘caste’ exists in Sanskrit. What existed were four “varnA-s” based on mental proclivity and professional skill of the individual (4.13, BG). Relative ranking or a pecking order within them was unknown (as per the recorded evidence of Greek historian Megasthanese in 3rd century BC).

    3. It is the British colonial administrators who introduced castes and their rankings in India – the credit goes mostly to Herbert Risley who headed the 1901 Census.

    4. Regarding the unhealthy later developments in “institutionalizing” the renunciates etc., one cannot perhaps find fault with the young adolescent boy (Shankara) who created a system in order to introduce a discipline into it while fighting out many entrenched ideas of his time.

    5. It sounds very unfortunate that if one argues that there exists a gap or lack in the “Eternal, All-pervading Kniwledge of the Self” in any one or at any place or time that one has to make efforts to “acquire It”! It is ‘prAptasya prAptih’ and there is no ‘acquisition’ involved. I had a recent Post touching on this topic at:


    What is needed is only getting rid of not-Self (18.50, BG).


    P.S.: One can listen to Dr. S. Trivedi in this 8-min Video regarding “caste system in India.” He gives several examples of highly revered Sages from so-called castes which are “now” ranked at the bottom rungs of the society. The Talk is in Hindi.
    Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iqhvxErkwg

  10. Hi Rick, I think we are almost saying the same thing. Your quotes from Lao Tse are not really different from a multitude of verses in BG.

    My point is that “moral” outcomes are inevitable for a jnani / sannyasi [to the extent the world dream continues :-)], without having any concept of acting morally (which is consistent with Lao Tse). A further point is that most people, seemingly acting for moral purposes, actually do more harm than good – only a sage’s action / non action, being without ego, can truly be moral.

    I think your argument applies more to people on the path, where Advaita can be misunderstood to permit any action, “because I am the witness of the action, and in myself do not act”. We’ve had that discussion with self=proclaimed enlightened interlocuters before. 🙂


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