Monday, September 11, 2006

The Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda: Part One

I. Introduction

The figure of Swami Vivekananda casts a long shadow in the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century religious thought. His influence, which extends now into the twenty-first century, can be seen in a variety of contexts. Later Indian teachers of spirituality who have worked in the West, such as Yogananda, owe a large debt to Vivekananda, as do Western self-styled gurus, like Adi Da (Franklin Jones). Likewise, many of the ideas of perennialist writers who deal with Indian yoga and mysticism, such as Ken Wilber and Georg Feuerstein, echo ideas originally popularized by Vivekananda. While many remember Vivekananda as a teacher of spirituality and prominent leader of a religious community, he was also, and perhaps more importantly, an influential rhetorician and apologist for what he referred to as the "sanatana dharma," the "eternal tradition" of Hinduism.

For Vivekananda, the primary expression of India's "eternal tradition" was the Vedanta, in particular, Advaita Vedanta. But a question has lingered in the minds of historians of religion over the degree to which Vivekananda's "Vedanta" can be said to correspond to the classical Advaita of Gaudapada, Shankara, Mandana and their successors. For the discerning historian, it is apparent that Vivekananda significantly modifies the classical Vedanta, and that his modifications are not derivative of the traditional interpretations; no, they appear as the expression of something new.

In one of the few historically critical articles on Vivekananda, the German Indologist Paul Hacker posed the question thus:

The student of Indian thought must ask himself whether this modification is a straight prolongation of the lines traced out by the ancient masters of the monistic Vedanta, or whether there is a break between the ideas of the old school and Vivekananda's presentation of the Vedanta.... The result of such scrutiny is that there is actually a break... ("Aspects of Neo-Hinduism," Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta, W. Halbfass, editor, p. 240.)

A noted scholar of the classical Indian tradition, Hacker was also interested in the relation between Indian traditionalism and modernity. Hacker proposed the term "Neo-Hinduism" to refer to various Hindu modernists and nationalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, authors and political leaders such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894); B.G. Tilak (1856-1920); Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1947); Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941); and Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982). Other writers and religious leaders, such as Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-1883), and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) are considered "forerunners" of Neo-Hinduism by Hacker, since the theme of Hindu nationalism remains undeveloped in their works. Hacker also occasionally used the term "Neo-Vedanta" to refer to the writings of religious thinkers and writers within Neo-Hinduism whose orientation was more specifically Vedantic, figures such as Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), and the noted intellectual historian and statesman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975).

What, then, does it mean to call Vivekananda a "Neo-Vedantin?" What Hacker has in mind when he speaks of Neo-Hinduism is specifically the adoption of Western values and approaches, and the subsequent attempt to find those values imbedded in the indigenous Indian tradition. There are, of course, various degrees to which a writer or movement can be said to be "Neo-Hindu" in this regard. Interestingly, Hacker finds the writings of the Neo-Vedantins to be the most characteristic expressions of the Neo-Hindu type.

Though it is primarily through the work of Hacker that the term "Neo-Vedanta" has come into its current usage, the term itself predates Hacker's work. A Bengali work from 1817, for example, speaks of the "new Vedanta" (abhinava-vedanta) of Rammohan Roy. And an article in the Calcutta Review of 1844 compares the term "Neo-Vedanta" to the usage "Neo-Platonism"; the article remarks:

So, in like manner, ought much of what, nowadays, is made to pass for Vedantism -- consisting as it does of a new compound arising from an incorporation of many Western ideas with fragments of oriental thought -- to be designated Neo-Vedantism to distinguish it from the old.

The context of the above remark is one that is already apologetic and polemically charged, with Hindu traditionalists, Christian missionaries, and early Hindu modernists constituting the primary factions. In the years to come, the Neo-Vedantins will answer the charge that their innovations do not entail the incorporation of foreign elements by arguing that these elements are to be found originally in the primordial Vedanta. Thus, Hacker's secondary characteristic -- that of attempting to find modern values in the ancient tradition -- is also an extension of the polemical context from which the term "Neo-Vedanta" arises.

What distinguishes Hacker's specific application of the term "Neo-Vedanta," vis-a-vis earlier applications, is that it is more or less descriptive and not normative. I say "more or less" since Hacker was also interested in the "Hindu-Christian dialogue" of his day. This being the case, it can be difficult, at times, to separate clearly Hacker's purely historical and Indological concerns from his theological ones; Hacker himself believed that the aim of "pure" objectivity was an abstraction. Nonetheless, in his studies, Hacker was able to identify some important differences between the classical Indian tradition and certain modern expressions of Hinduism, and he managed to reveal the essentially rhetorical elements of the latter in the process. Thus, from an Indological point of view, his categories of "Neo-Hinduism" and "Neo-Vedanta" make for useful historical descriptions.

My work here is meant to complement and extend the work of Hacker and the late Wilhelm Halbfass. My approach to Vivekananda's presentation of Vedanta will be historical and critical, and yet at the same time hermeneutically sensitive. By the term "critical" I do not mean that I will simply supply a critique of Vivekananda's thought as such. What I mean is that I will not take what he says at face value, as a phenomenologist might; rather, I will subject what he says to the scrutiny of critical reason and fact. At the same time, I will not indulge in the mere "deconstruction" of either the person of Vivekananda or his thought, and this is what I mean by the designation "hermeneutically sensitive." For, whatever his "influence," there is much that is of historical interest in the thought of Vivekananda.


II. A Note on the Sources of this Study

The works of Vivekananda amount to nearly four thousand pages. To facilitate access to the wide range of Vivekananda's writings, the editors at Advaita Ashrama assembled a single-volume collection of some of Vivekananda's more memorable tracts. First published in 1944, it is an commendable edition, in my opinion, as it provides not only a fair representation of Vivekananda's ideas and general vision, but suggests an interesting impression of the character of Vivekananda himself.

Running at close to 500 pages, Selections from Swami Vivekananda contains many of the more forceful chapters from his four well-known books on yoga -- Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. It also contains several important essays and lectures, as well as some of his more interesting addresses and inspired speeches to his Indian countrymen. Rounding out the contents are various interviews, conversations, private discourses to students, and letters to friends and correspondents.

The collection shows Vivekananda at his rhetorical best -- or worst, depending on how one views such things. This makes it a useful document for students and teachers of the history of Indian religion, as it brings together Vivekananda the philosopher and teacher of spirituality with Vivekananda the political visionary and religious propagandist.

I will be focussing on the words and ideas of Vivekananda in this essay and not dwell extensively on his biography. Instead of referring to page numbers from the various books of Vivekananda, I will simply refer to the page numbers of the one-volume edition, Selections.

In Part One of this essay I have drawn largely from the studies of Paul Hacker and Wilhelm Halbfass (listed at the end of Part One). I have also consulted Swami Nikhilananda's biography of Swami Vivekananda.

In Part Two of the essay, I collate various recurring themes found in Selections. The aim will be to contextualize aspects of the thinking and rhetoric of Vivekananda by relating select ideas to their classical and modern antecedents. In this way, I hope to give meaning and content to the designation "Neo-Vedanta" as it applies to his thought.


III. The Intellectual Context Prior to Vivekananda: Three Forerunners

All thought arises relative to a particular intellectual milieu. The thinking of Vivekananda is not different in this regard, and accordingly, several of the themes in Vivekananda's thought can also be found in his intellectual and rhetorical forerunners. Three of the most important of these are Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, and Keshab Chandra Sen.

Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) was a Hindu "reformer" from Bengal. He is sometimes associated with the so-called Hindu "renaissance" and has been called "the father of modern India," even though he was by no means a Hindu nationalist. A brahmin by birth, he came from a family of successful businessmen. As a result of his family's business ventures, he had extensive contact with English and Muslim cultures during his youth. Financial security later allowed Rammohan to dedicate his time to scholarly and journalistic interests. In 1828, he founded the Brahma Samaj, a movement concerned with Hindu reform. Perhaps his most famous campaign opposed the practice of "suttee."

One of the most important themes in Rammohan Roy's thought is that of universalism, a theme that occurs with increasing frequency in his writings. Rammohan was among the first to point to commonalities shared by the world's religions. M. Monier-Williams and B.N. Seal saw him as an early practitioner of the field of "comparative religions." In 1829, Rammohan published a work with the title, The Universal Religion: Religious Instructions founded on Sacred Sources. In this work, we find the germ of the idea that the Hindu tradition is superior to all others due to its ability to subsume the foreign. In Rammohan's thought, this receptivity to the foreign is presented as an essential aspect of Hinduism. Here, perhaps for the first time in history, Indian "inclusivism" is extended toward religions and traditions outside of India.

Rammohan attempted to find a traditional basis for this universalism by referring to classical Hindu sources, such as the scriptures of Vedanta and the commentaries of Shankara. He also referred to the Mahanirvana Tantra. A text of questionable date and origin, the Mahanirvana Tantra is an important text in the history of Indian inclusivism. It speaks of the kaula-dharma as super-ceding all other Hindu revelation: just as the elephant's footprint obliterates the footprints of all the animals of the forest, so too the kaula-dharma subsumes every other Hindu tradition. The Mahanirvana Tantra is also interesting in that it speaks of the kaula community as open to all men, an idea that may indicate influence from Mahayana Buddhism.

Rammohan regarded the Deism of the rationalists as the supreme theology. In regards the Indian traditions, he viewed the Vedanta as particularly authoritative. In an attempt to bring the two together, he came to understand the monism of Advaita Vedanta as the expression of a "pure monotheism." As for Rammohan's readings of Shankara, they are rather forced. For one, the stringent requirements of "qualification" (adhikara) set out by Shankara are systematically avoided by Rammohan in his commentaries. Indeed, Rammohan sought to do away entirely with the notion of caste-based "qualification"; unlike Shankara, he understood ultimate truth as accessible to everyone. Rammohan also sought to relate the teachings of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta to "practical" and utilitarian concerns, such as the achievement of social ends. But in the classical Vedanta of Shankara, the domains of worldly means-and-ends, on the one hand, and salvation (moksha), on the other, are sharply demarcated. As Shankara says at the end of his introduction to Brhad Up 3.2.1, "means and ends constitute bondage (sadhya-sadhana-lakshano bandhah)."

Though the Mahanirvana Tantra provided a degree of inspiration for Rammohan, his interest in universalism appears to have stemmed from his preoccupation with another idea, that of religious egalitarianism. This interest in egalitarianism derived in large part from his encounter with Western liberal thought, in particular, J. Bentham's idea of the "greatest good for the greatest number." In his writings, Rammohan appears to have retrofitted the idea to Hinduism and then read it back into his Sanskrit sources.

Paralleling the themes of universalism and egalitarianism is another theme that functions as their reflex. This is the idea that the traditional brahmanic pandits have appropriated the Vedic revelation and adapted it to serve their own purposes. According to Rammohan, the pandits, who are only interested in their own ends, are the real perpetrators of the idea of qualification (adhikara). These "selfish pundits" (svarthapara pandita) have at the same time dissembled the real purport of the scriptures; Rammohan writes:

But from its being concealed within the dark curtain of the Sungskrit language, and the Brahmins permitting themselves alone to interpret or even to touch any book of the kind, the Vedant, although perpetually quoted, is little known to the public.

Accordingly, Rammonhan had little interest in maintaining the traditional schools of the pandits. Rather, he supported the idea of instituting the English system of education in India. In keeping with his liberal predilections, Rammohan saw education as an important means of levelling caste hierarchy.

In the above quotation from Rammohan, we also find implied another important theme. This is the idea that the sources of Hinduism are pure in their original essence, but that their contents have been distorted by those who have appropriated their transmission. As opposed to this "corrupt" and ossified tradition, Rammohan advocates a return the "primordial intent" of the Vedas and other sources of Hinduism.

Another interesting aspect of Rammohan's writings concerns not so much the content of his thought as its rhetorical form. Like some of his Neo-Hindu successors, especially those who wrote in English, Rammohan wrote not only for Indian audiences, but for, and against, Europeans. An interesting aspect of his writing is the degree to which his various addresses differ depending upon whom he is addressing. When he is addressing a primarily European audience, he appeals to concepts such as "common sense," "reason," and "the dignity of the human," all the while playing down ideas like reincarnation. But when he is addressing his Bengali audiences, for example, we find the expression of familiar Indian themes such as the tension between "yukti" (reason) and "shastra" (scripture).

According to Hacker, Rammohan Roy's thought should not be understood as an expression of "Neo-Hinduism" proper since we do not find the theme of Hindu nationalism present in it, a theme that Hacker sees as characteristic. Nonetheless, we do find the beginnings of Hindu self-assertion in Rammohan's writings, and many of his conceptions anticipate ideas that will reappear in the writings of Neo-Vedantins, especially those of Vivekananda, who more than once refers to him favourably. In this sense, he can be considered an important forerunner of Neo-Vedanta and Neo-Hinduism in general.

Another leader of the Brahma Samaj was the influential thinker and writer Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), father of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. In a much more overt way than what we find in Rammohan, Debendranath questioned the degree to which the Hindu scriptures are to be taken as authoritative; he openly challenged those portions of the scriptures that he saw as unsuitable for the "worship of Brahma," as he conceived it.

One theme that follows from this challenge to scriptural authority is the search for the foundation of authority in self-certainty. For if traditional authority is to be challenged, then some other form of authority will be needed to replace what has been displaced. So it is that we find in Debendranath's thought the idea that validity and authority lie, most authentically, in the "experiential" and "intuitive" confirmation of truth. Significantly, Debendranath tells us that the ancient seers (rishis) "experimentally tested" (parikshita) and confirmed the truths expressed in the Upanishads. In this scenario, the Upanishads become documents chronicling the "experiences" of ancient yogins.

Debendranath also believed that the ancient seers had intended us personally to realize and "experientially confirm" the truths they had discovered, and he saw himself as a kind of seer who had personally realized such truths. It is important to note that for Debendranath, scriptural revelation does not hold the same kind of authority it does in traditional Hinduism. Truth for him is not implicit in the religious text itself; it is to be found in the "intuitive confirmation" of what the text denotes. The scriptures are mere secondary reports of such experience; what matters is the intuitive experience of truth itself, which Debendranath claims has its ground in his one's "own heart." He writes accordingly, "I evolved the foundation of the Brahma Dharma from my own heart."

Unlike Rammohan, Debendranath did not recognize the authority of Shankara's writings. He appears to have realized that Shankara's allegiance to scriptural authority would not be in keeping with his own understanding of the role of the Hindu scriptures. He also saw the austere soteriology of Advaita Vedanta as out of touch with religious life and its social expression as he envisioned it. Abandoning the classical commentaries of Shankara, he wrote his own commentaries upon the Upanishads in their stead.

While it is possible that Debendranath may have been inspired by the mystical traditions of his native Bengal, his most important ideas appear to come from modern European thought, in particular, from the Scottish school of Common Sense. In his writings, Debendranath attempts to find Indian equivalents for the principles of self-certainty and common sense; for example, when he uses the compound "svatahsiddha-atmapratyaya" it is clear that he means "self-evident intuition." While Debendranath's notions concerning "intuition" (atma-pratyaya) and the "heart" (hrdaya) sound much like the "personal conviction" (atma-tushthi) and "inner voice" (hrdaya-koshana) referred to in the dharmashastra literature, and his use of the term "svatahsiddha" reminds us of the concept of "svatahpramanya," the "self-validating authority" of the Vedas referred to by the Mimamsakas, it is important to note that Debendranath reverses the priority established by Kumarila and other orthodox commentators. This is to say that Debendranath takes "self-evidence" and "intuition" as primary and the Vedic texts as their mere secondary effect. This indicates that he gives initial priority to the modern concepts of "self-certainty" and "common sense" and only subsequently attempts to find their analogs in the Indian lexicon.

Debendranath's adaptation of the Indian term for "examination" (pariksha), which for him refers to a kind of "experimental verification," shows influence from the camp of the empiricists as well. Indeed, Debendranath is important in the history of Neo-Hinduism, and in regard to the writings of those who will follow in its wake, because he is among the first to articulate a philosophical basis for what has been called "mystical empiricism." The central idea of mystical empiricism is the principle that spiritual truths can not only be "empirically verified" through spiritual or "transpersonal" experience, but that they are required to known in such a manner. We find this idea not only in the writings of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Yogananda, but in the works of perennialists like Wilber and Feuerstein.

One more figure should be referred to before turning to the life of Vivekananda, and that person is Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884). Keshab was a compatriot of Debendranath in the Brahma Samaj. In Keshab's thinking, the idea that "intuition" is superior to scripture is even more pronounced. But unlike Debendranath, Keshab was more open to the suggestion that there are sources of truth outside of Hinduism, and to the idea of the universal harmony of all religions. For Keshab, the Buddha, Christ, and Moses are all rishis. In the Gospel of Ramakrishna it is suggested that Keshab's view was shaped largely by his encounter with Ramakrishna, who also held the view of the universal harmony of all religions. But though Keshab did meet with Ramakrishna on several occasions, his biography shows that he arrived at his belief in the universal harmony of all faiths independently of the influence of Ramakrishna.

Like Rammohan and Debendranath, Keshab's writings also show the influence of European thought. Familiar Western philosophical turns of phrase such as "common sense," "a priori truth," and so on, pepper his writings. We also find in Keshab's work the development of an important theme that will reappear among later apologists like Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Yogananda and Wilber. This is the idea that "Western" scientific enquiry and "Eastern" spirituality need not be mutually incompatible, but that they can complement each other and indeed, supplement each other's deficiencies; Keshab writes:

Europe, the Lord has blessed thee with scholarship and science and philosophy, and with these thou art great among the nations of the earth. Add to these the faith and intuition and spirituality of Asia, and thou will be greater still. Asia honours thy philosophy; do thou honour, O Europe, Asia's spirituality and communion. Thus shall we rectify each other's errors and supplement mutual deficiencies. (Lectures in India)

The stage is now set for the appearance of Vivekananda.


IV. Four Events in the Life of Vivekananda that Shaped his Thought

Vivekananda, i.e., Narendranath Datta, was born in 1863 in Calcutta. He was a member of the kayastha, a scribe caste that viewed itself as a sub-caste of the kshatriyas. In 1879 he entered Presidency College in Calcutta, and later he studied at Scottish Church College. In 1884, he received a B.A. degree.

During his time at college, Narendra became acquainted with European philosophy. He studied the positivism of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, the scepticism of David Hume, and the agnostic thought of Herbert Spencer. The works of these European philosophers had been exerting their influence in Bengal for some time. Comte was particularly well known in Bengal. Enthusiasts in Europe had sent positivist "missionaries" to Bengal at one time to spread the word, and Comte came to have a dedicated following there. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1794) had, over a period of time, been translated into Bengali. Hume was taught at the Hindu College in Calcutta. And the empiricism and Utilitarianism of J.S. Mill were well known among Bengali intellectuals. Rammohan Roy himself had corresponded with Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart's mentor.

Throughout most of his youth, Narendra maintained a belief in God, a belief that was in part shaped by the teachings of the Brahma Samaj. But as a result of his study of European positivism, in particular Mill's Three Essays on Religion, his faith in theism collapsed. This shattering of his faith was a significant event in the life of young Narendra, and it eventually helped orient him away from theism and motivate him to move toward the Vedanta and Yoga. We find evidence in his later writings of the perceived effects of the Enlightenment critique of religion:

Modern science and its sledge hammer blows are pulverising the porcelain foundations of all dualistic religions everywhere. "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 229

Under the terrific onset of modern scientific research, all the old forts of Western dogmatic religions are crumbling into dust; ... the sledge-hammer blows of modern science are pulverising the porcelain mass of systems whose foundation is either in faith or in belief... "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 419.

Some time after these events, one of Narendra's friends, Bajendranath Seal, introduced him to the metaphysical monism of Advaita Vedanta and to the Hegelian concept of reason ("the real is the rational, and the rational is the real"). With Bajendra's help, Narendra was able to construct a philosophical perspective that allowed him to ameliorate the effect that positivism and scepticism had exerted upon him. This perspective combined Vedanta with elements of rationalism. This amalgam remained with Narendra throughout his life, and he eventually came to understand Advaita Vedanta as particularly capable of resisting the Enlightenment critique of religion. On the Vedanta, he later writes:

We have seen how here alone we can take a firm stand against all the onrush of logic and scientific knowledge. Here at last reason has a firm foundation.... Therefore, preach the Advaita to everyone so that religion may withstand the shock of modern science. "The Vedanta," Selections, pp. 220; 230.

The influence of empiricism can also be discerned in his later writings; we will return to the question of how he adapted classical empiricism to the Indian tradition by fusing it with yogic mysticism. For now, we can note that he did not agree with the classical empirical view that experience is primarily sensory experience. Concerning empiricism, he asks rhetorically, "Who dares say that the senses are the all-in-all of man?" "The Sages of India," Selections, p. 235

In the years immediately following the death of his spiritual master in 1886, Narendra lived in a small monastery in Baranagore with others disciples. But he grew restless, and so he began wandering the country as samnyasin. During this period, we find Narendra continuing to seek out knowledge and spiritual experience -- meeting with various religious leaders and teachers, receiving instruction in Sanskrit from pandits, and living life as a traditional ascetic.

Narendra's letters from this time display a concern that his growing interest in the welfare of others might be hampering his own quest for spiritual enlightenment and liberation. But sometime during 1893, a change in his attitude begins to take place. A letter written in 1894 reveals that his interest had grown to the point where he had become alarmed by the despair and impoverishment of the people of India. This experience of Indian humiliation was another determinative event in his life, and it proved to be something of a turning point for him.

Other Hindu modernists and Neo-Hindu thinkers had experienced this sense of humiliation as well, and there was a general feeling among them that India, and Hinduism in particular, had grown too accustomed to its spiritual resignation and political inertia. S. Radhakrishnan describes the state of dejection he experienced as a student at Madras Christian College:

I was strongly persuaded of the inferiority of the Hindu religion to which I attributed a political downfall of India.... I remember the cold sense of reality, the depressing feeling that crept over me, as a causal relation between the anaemic Hindu religion and our political failure forced itself on my mind. ("The Spirit of Man")

No doubt, this feeling of inferiority was directly related to India's years of political subjugation. But it was also related to the Indian encounter with European civilization and culture. To an extent, this involved its confrontation with European science, technology, and rationality. But it also involved the social and ethical challenge presented to Hinduism by the Christian missionaries and others. Vivekananda refers to this challenge at various points in his writings; he writes:

Look at the books published in Madras against the Hindu religion. If a Hindu writes such a line against the Christian religion, the missionaries will cry fire and vengeance. "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 416

This critique of Hinduism took particular aim at Advaita Vedanta. In their attack on the Vedanta, the Christian apologists enlisted the aid of the principle of utility. An article from the Calcutta Review of 1852 reads, "Let Utility then answer if she prefers Vedantism to Christianity." When referring to the superiority of Christianity, the Christian apologists often pointed to the social and ethical consequences of adopting Vedanta. The implication was that the Vedanta lacked the ability to address properly ethical and social concerns.

This idea, that Advaita Vedanta suffers from a kind of "ethical apathy," is traced by its critics to the doctrine of the witness (sakshin), that is, to the teaching that the soul is, in its essence, merely a passive spectator and never truly an active agent (kartr). This is the familiar charge of "quietism," the accusation that contemplative traditions are negligent of the needs of society and theoretically inadequate to the task of social activism. Again, we find evidence that Vivekananda was aware of this critique:

"Oh" they say, "you Hindus have become quiescent and good for nothing, through this doctrine that you are witnesses!" "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 217

The critics of Vedanta also related this doctrine to another problem: Under the auspices of eternalism, any action becomes possible since any action can be rationalized. Bhagavad Gita 2.19 reads, "Neither he who sees the Self as a killer, nor he who sees the Self as killed, sees things correctly. For the Self is not a killer and nor is it killed." Surely, they argued, this sort of teaching is anathema to ethically justifiable conduct. Many centuries earlier, the Jains and Buddhists had raised a similar objection. They pointed out that any doctrine that teaches that the real can only be the permanent (nitya) and unchanging (avichalita; kutastha) reality will teach the akriya-vada, the teaching that nothing can be done, since all action is impossible.

Another way that monism was viewed as ethically challenged was related by its critics to its inability to provide an adequate frame of reference for morality. Again, it is worth noting that the Indian tradition itself had noticed this problem well before the appearance of Christian missionaries in India. The classical critics of Vedanta posed the problem thus: If we are all one Self, then moral retribution in the case of individuals is senseless; and if we are all essentially one with God, then our sins will attach to God. The modernist critique of Advaita continues this line of thought, if in a less sophisticated manner: If duality is illusory, then good and evil do not exist; and if we are all God, then we can do no wrong. In his later writings, Vivekananda also shows an awareness of this type of critique; he writes:

Our boys blithely talk nowadays, they learn from somebody -- the Lord knows whom -- that Advaita makes people immoral, because if we are all one and all God, what need of morality will there be at all! "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 222

With regard to the question of Hinduism, and religion in general, some Indian reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had come to the conclusion that Hinduism itself was to blame for India's political and social stagnation. But there is little indication in his writings that Vivekananda ever seriously entertained this idea. Since his discovery of Vedanta, and his encounter with Ramakrishna, he appears convinced that Hinduism, and Advaita Vedanta in particular, is not the problem, but the solution. For Vivekananda, spirituality is India's strength. This meant that, "religion was not to blame; men were to blame."

Determined that he should seek to find a way to improve the lot of the people of India, Narendranath, who at this time begins calling himself Vivekananda, decided to leave India in search of the resources needed to improve the well-being of India's masses. And so, in 1893, he set sail for America. He remained there until 1896, taking occasional excursions to England and continental Europe. While in the West, he experienced American and European civilization and culture. This exposure to Western lifestyles, and culture in general, was another formative factor in the thought of Vivekananda.

Throughout Vivekananda's writings we find stereotyped descriptions of the "West." Most typically, the West is "materialistic" and dominated, as he puts it, by the ideals of "eating and drinking." But he acknowledges that Europe and America have mastered the "outer world," and he contrasts this with the Indian mastery of the "inner world." Like Keshab Chandra Sen, Vivekananda speaks of the value of an exchange of learning between the two "complementary" cultures:

I would say, the combination of the Greek mind represented by the external European energy added to the Hindu spirituality would be the ideal society for India.... India has to learn from Europe the conquest of external nature, and Europe has to learn from India the conquest of the internal nature.... We have developed one phase of humanity, and they another. It is the union of the two that is wanted. Interview from "The Hindu," (Madras) 1897, Selections, pp. 290-291

At the same time, however, Vivekananda is not as conciliatory toward the West as Rammohan Roy or Keshab Chandra Sen. He insists that India should resist Western social norms and cultural attitudes, and make no concessions to Christianity. It must discover its own hidden potential and recover its forgotten greatness; if anything, it must follow the lead of Japan, which found and maintained its own identity even while learning from the West:

There in Japan you find a fine assimilation of knowledge, and not its indigestion, as we have here. They have taken everything from the Europeans, but they remain Japanese all the same, and they have not turned into Europeans; while in our country, the terrible mania of becoming Westernized has seized upon us like a plague. "Conversations," Selections, p. 386

Nonetheless, there are a number of features of American and European civilization that Vivekananda comes to admire. He admires its technical expertise and science; he admires its industry, vigour and work ethic; he admires its social order, in particular the organization of its educational systems; he admires its ideals of equality and liberty; he admires its traditions of philanthropy, altruism, and cooperative action; and perhaps above all, he admires the self-confidence of the West, to which he attributes its strong sense of national identity.

Upon returning from his travels abroad, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission, the principle aims of which were to be practical philanthropy and education. In his speeches, Vivekananda himself says that his establishing of the Ramakrishna Mission was directly influenced by his life in America. His opening statement at the inaugural meeting of what will become the Ramakrishna Mission begins thus:

The conviction has grown in my mind after my travels in various lands that no great cause can succeed without an organization. "Conversations," Selections, p. 343.

But the most significant event in the life of Vivekananda was undoubtedly his encounter with Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna (i.e., Gadadhara Chattopadhyaya, 1836-1886) was a temple priest at Daskshineshwar, Bengal, and devotee of the goddess Kali. An ecstatic and mystic, he viewed Hinduism as an organic whole comprised of several different, yet equal, paths to the divine. For Ramakrishna, this equality was a demonstrable truth, and for periods of time, he was alternately a devotee of Rama and Krishna, receiving religious visions of both while practising as their devotee. At the same time, Ramakrishna was also a universalist whose inclusivism went beyond the various forms of cultic Hinduism. He believed that Islam and Christianity were equally paths to God, to the "one water that we all drink," and he thought he could demonstrate, experientially, that this was the case.

We find present in the person and teaching of Ramakrishna the familiar themes of "experience" and "inclusivism." But Ramakrishna was no Hindu modernist, and nor was his teaching, strictly speaking, a form of Neo-Hinduism. He distanced himself from modernist Hindu movements; his negative view of the Brahma Samaj was closer to that of the traditional pandits. Like some of his contemporaries, Ramakrishna referred to the Hindu tradition as the "sanatana dharma," "the eternal religion," and for him this meant that Hinduism was in no need of "reform." Nonetheless, Ramakrishna's universalism, and his conception of Hinduism as a unity, was also a response to the situation of modernity and to the Indian encounter with the West. His teaching can thus be seen as a form of a Hindu self-assertion in that it implies that Hinduism is capable of absorbing the foreign while retaining its self-identity.

Narendra first met with Ramakrishna in 1881, while he was a student at college. At first, Narendra was reticent toward Ramakrishna. He was sceptical of Ramakrishna's "visions" and suspicious of the idolatry practiced around him; nor did he did not share Ramakrishna's emotional and ebullient religiosity. But after several years of association with him, he acquired a fondness for Ramakrishna, and became one of his disciples. He was soon Ramakrishna's favourite, and he would become the best known apostle of Ramakrishna's gospel of universalism. In time, Vivekananda came to share some of his master's fervour for the religious life, though he continued to distance himself from religious sentimentality and emotionalism.

While Narendra did not seek to relive the various devotional experiences of his master, Ramakrishna did immerse him in mystical spirituality, and under his tutelage, Narendra underwent a series of mystical experiences. For Narendra, such experience was the final proof of religion, the refutation of scepticism, and the answer to positivism.

As a mature devotee, Vivekananda came to regard Ramakrishna as an incarnation of God. He viewed him as a kind of "living commentary" on Hinduism, as the embodiment of its vitality and truth, and the fulfilment of its potential. While there is no reason to doubt that Vivekananda's devotion to his master was real, he also made use of the traditional cult of the guru to forward his own agenda and to propagate his own teachings. After the death of his teacher in 1886, Vivekananda believed that the spirit of Ramakrishna was working through him. But while Ramakrishna may have been a source of inspiration and grounding for Vivekananda, he was not the primary source of Vivekananda's ideas. Ramakrishna was not a Neo-Vedantin; nor did he share Vivekananda's later interests in "practical Vedanta," philanthropy and education. Nonetheless, when confronted by these differences, Vivekananda presented himself as the "instrument" of his master.

In Selections, there is recorded the following conversation between Vivekananda and another disciple of Ramakrishna, Yogananada (not the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, but another). The conversation followed the inaugural meeting of what would be the Ramakrishna Mission:

Vivekananda: So the work is now begun this way; let us see how far its succeeds, by the will of Ramakrishna.

Yogananda: You are doing these things with Western methods. Should you say Shri Ramakrishna left us any such instructions?

Vivekananda: Well, how do you know that all this is not on Shri Ramakrishna's lines? He had an infinite breadth of feeling, and dare you shut him up within your own limited views of life? I will break down these limits and scatter broadcast over the earth his boundless inspiration. We have to realise the teachings he has left us about religious practice and devotion, concentration and meditation and such higher ideas and truths, and preach these to men. The infinite number of faiths are only so many paths. I haven't been born to found one more sect in a world already teeming with sects. We have been blessed with obtaining refuge at the feet of the Master, and we are born to carry his message to the dwellers of the three worlds.... So casting all doubt away, please help my work, and you will find everything fulfilled by his will.

Yogananda: Yes, whatever you will, shall be fulfilled; and are we not all ever obedient to you? Now and then I do see how Shri Ramakrishna is getting these things done by you. And yet, to speak plainly, some misgiving rises at intervals, for as we saw it, his way of doing things was different. So I question myself: Are we sure that we are not going astray from Shri Ramakrishna's teachings? -- and so I take the opposing attitude and warn you.

Vivekananda: You see, the fact is that Shri Ramakrishna is not exactly what the ordinary followers have comprehended him to be. He had infinite moods and phases. Even if you might form an idea of the limits of Brahmajnana, the knowledge of the Absolute, you could not do the same with the unfathomable depths of his mind! Thousands of Vivekanandas may spring forth through one gracious glance of his eyes! But instead of doing that, he has chosen to get things done this time through me as his single instrument, and what can I do in this matter, you see? "Conversations," Selections, pp. 344-345.


V. Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta in Relation to His Predecessors and Successors

Like Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda takes the Vedanta as the quintessential expression of Hinduism; at times he virtually equates the two:

The Vedanta, then, practically forms the scriptures of the Hindus, and all the systems of philosophy that are orthodox have to take it as their foundation. "The Vedanta Philosophy," Selections, p. 95.

If the Vedanta is the heart of Hinduism for Vivekananda, then Advaita is its crowning glory. While Aurobindo questioned the value and relevance of the classical Advaita of Shankara, Vivekananda adopts Advaita Vedanta and applies the inclusivist agenda of the later Advaitin doxographers to the Indian tradition, making it not only the basis for harmonizing the various traditions of Hinduism but the inspiration for his conception of the national unity of India; indeed, he refers to the Vedanta as "our national philosophy." (Selections, p. 182) This general attitude toward Advaita Vedanta stands in contrast to the view of Ramakrishna, who saw Advaitism as simply one path among many.

In his scheme for harmonization, Vivekananda adopts the traditional Vedantic distinction between the karma-kanda and the jnana-kanda, or as he puts it, between "ceremonialism," which aims at bhoga, enjoyment, and "spirituality," which aims at moksha. To the former he assigns the Samhitas and Brahmanas, while to the latter he assigns the Aranyakas and Upanishads, which he refers to as the "rahasya," or "esoteric" portion of the Vedas.

The moksha-marga is further divided by Vivekananda into the orientations and practices of jnana and bhakti:

Now all the sects in India can be grouped roughly as following the Jnana-Marga or the Bhakti-Marga. "In Defence of Hinduism" Selections, p. 412.

Here, Vivekananda adapts Shankara's division between higher knowledge (para-vidya) and lower knowledge (apara-vidya), that is, between jnana proper, which takes brahman as formless (nirguna), and upasana, which worships the brahman with form (saguna). Vivekananda then applies this division to the various sub-schools of Vedanta. The implication is that the dualism and modified non-dualisms of Madhva, Ramanuja, Vallabha, and Chaitanya all fall within the lower knowledge of the bhakti-marga.

Vivekananda also makes use of ideas that recall Rammohan's notion of the "pure origin" and subsequent degeneration of Hinduism. The idea that aspects of modern Hinduism are "degenerate" was not an idea explicitly endorsed by Ramakrishna, who saw Hinduism as a totality of paths. Nonetheless, Vivekananda appeals to such ideas -- for example, when describing the purpose of Ramakrishna's incarnation:

But when by the process of time, fallen from the true ideals and rules of conduct, devoid of the spirit of renunciation, addicted only to blind usages and degraded in intellect, the descendents of the Aryas failed to appreciate even the spirit of these Puranas etc., which taught men of ordinary intelligence the abstruse truths of the Vedanta in concrete form.... And when as a consequence, they reduced India, the fair land of religion, to a scene of infernal confusion by breaking up into fragments the one Eternal Religion of the Vedas (Sanatana Dharma), the grand synthesis of the aspects of the Spiritual Ideal, into conflicting sects.... then it was that Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna incarnated himself in India, to demonstrate what the true religion of the Aryan race is; to show where amidst all its many divisions and offshoots, scattered over the land in the course of its immemorial history, lies the true unity of the Hindu religion... "Hinduism and Shri Ramakrishna," Selections, p. 430.

Like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda extends this "harmonization" include all the worlds religions; he continues:

So at the very dawn of this momentous epoch, the reconciliation of all aspects and ideals of religious thought is being proclaimed... This epochal dispensation is the harbinger of great good for the whole world. "Hinduism and Shri Ramakrishna," Selections, p. 432.

One of Vivekananda's central aims is to revive interest in the Vedanta in India and to foster interest in it abroad. This proselytising instinct is much more pronounced in Vivekananda than in his predecessors. On the surface, Vivekananda teaches that India is the home of "tolerance" and the land of "spirituality," and he presents it as his mission to teach this to the world. The West, he suggests, is ready for the teachings of "Eastern spirituality," and it desires instruction:

Today the West is awakening to its wants, and the "true self of man" and "spirit" is the watchword of the advanced school of Western theologians. "In Defence of Hinduism" Selections, p. 417.

The world is waiting for the treasures to come from India...; little do you know how much of hunger and of thirst there is outside of India for these wonderful treasures of our forefathers. "Reply to the Calcutta address." Selections, p. 189.

But the teaching of "universal harmony" and "tolerance" is at the same time the view that the Vedanta is in truth the all-encompassing tradition. Here, the Vedanta is not just one religion among many; it is the essence of all religion. Thus, the universalism of Vivekananda is a form of Hindu self-assertion in so far as it implies that the Vedanta is superior to all other traditions by virtue of the fact that it simultaneously transcends and includes them all:

Ours is the universal religion. It is inclusive enough, it is broad enough to include all ideals. All the ideals of religion that already exist in the world can be immediately included, and we patiently wait for all ideals to come in the future to be taken in the same fashion, embraced in the infinite arms of the religion of the Vedanta. Collected Works III, p. 251.

While Vivekananda presented himself as interested in instructing the West about the truths of "spirituality," he was not interested in simply founding another sect. In an interview to an English newspaper he states:

It is contrary to our principles to multiply organizations, since in all conscience there are enough of them already. Selections, p. 280.

Nonetheless, he does speak of Hinduism and Vedanta as "conquering" the West in a manner analogous to the way that India had "conquered," i.e., absorbed, the Moghuls:

Before many years the English people will be Vedantins. (Interview from the "Hindu," Selections, p. 286)

The only condition of national life, of awakened and vigorous national life, is the conquest of the world by Indian thought. Collected Works III, p. 276.

In this last quotation we find reference to one of the most interesting and significant features of Vivekananda's project. Upon his return to India from America, Vivekananda discovers that his recognition in the West has greatly affected his image and standing in India; as a result he is asked to give a series of addresses. In his initial address, "In Defence of Hinduism," given in Madras, 1894, he states:

It is most gratifying to me to find that my insignificant service to the cause of our religion has been acceptable to you.... Generous is your appreciation of Him whose message to India and to the whole world I... had the pleasure to bear. It is your innate spiritual instinct which saw in Him and His message the first murmurs of that tidal wave of spirituality which is destined at no distant future to break upon India in all its irresistible powers... raising the Hindu race to the platform it is destined to occupy in the providence of God... fulfilling its mission among the races of the world -- the evolution of spiritual humanity. Selections, p. 403.

Like the message of "tolerance," Vivekananda's proselytising becomes of mere secondary importance; his primary interest is the national identity of Indians. Realizing the opportunity that now presents itself, he begins to utilize his recognition by the West, and Western interest in Vedanta, to bring attention to the Vedanta in India, and to generate Hindu confidence in its own traditions. Aghenanda Bharati has referred to this phenomenon as the "pizza effect" -- the idea being that the foreign acceptance of an idea or tradition helps to foster its appreciation among the indigenous populace.

But the most distinctive characteristic of Vivekananda's Vedanta is his suggestion that Vedanta needs to become "practical." It is here that the modern European elements in Vivekananda's thought are most conspicuous and where we can refer to it specifically as a form of Neo-Vedanta.

It was with respect to the practical and ethical domain that Debendranath Tagore and Dayananda Sarasvati had distanced themselves from the classical Advaita of Shankara. They did so for good reason: Shankara clearly separates ultimate soteriological concerns from worldly means and ends. Vivekananda, on the other hand, proceeds undaunted; he believes he can derive an ethical teaching from the principle of non-dualism. How he does so will form a significant portion of the discussion in Part Two of this essay.

It is not merely with respect to the content of his thought that European elements play a role in Vivekananda's Vedanta. As Halbfass points out, it is also important to note the role played by the context of the Indian encounter with modernity, European culture, and Christianity, for it is only within such a context that we can fully appreciate Vivekananda's interest in emphasizing the social and ethical domain. In other words, his concern that Vedanta become "practical" is as much a response to the challenge presented by Christian and Utilitarian ethics as it is an interest in the value of practical concerns as such. This response is important to Vivekananda as it is integral to his project of inspiring Indian self-confidence.

While European thought played an important role in the development of Vivekananda's notion of a "practical Vedanta," Indian elements influencing its development also can not be ignored. Ramakrishna himself had introduced Vivekananda to forms of "tantricizied" Advaita, such as the teachings contained in the Ashtavakra Gita and Yogavashishta. While he remains theoretically committed to Shankara's Vedanta, Vivekananda also incorporates into his teaching elements not characteristic of Shankara's thought. In his conception of non-dualism, Shankara emphasized the discrimination of the world from transcendent brahman; for Shankara, a-dvaita means that brahman has "no other," no second. Vivekananda, on the other hand, emphasizes a monistic version of non-dualism wherein the world is "non-other" than brahman. This acceptance of the world, which is an aspect of Tantric thought in general, lays the theoretical backdrop against which action in the world, in accordance with the principle of "non-dual ethics," becomes possible.

It Part Two of this essay, we will look at selected features of Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta in greater detail.


VI. Further Reading

From Paul Hacker, Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Hinduism, Wilhelm Halbfass, editor:

"Aspects of Neo-Hinduism as Contrasted with Surviving Traditional Hinduism"
"Schopenhauer and Hindu Ethics"
"Vivekananda's Religious Nationalism"

From Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Philosophical Understanding:

"Rammohan Roy and His Hermeneutic Situation."
"Neo-Hinduism, Modern Indian Traditionalism, and the Presence of Europe"
"Supplementary Observations on Modern Indian Thought"
"The Adoption of the Concept of Philosophy in Modern Hinduism"
"Reinterpretations of Dharma in Modern Hinduism"
"The Concept of Experience in the Encounter between India and the West"
"'Inclusivism' and 'Tolerance' in the Encounter between India and the West"

See also Aghenanda Bharati, "The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns," Journal of Asian Studies 29 (1970).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Philosophy of Shankara


Introduction


This post will look at the classical Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya and how he dealt with some basic questions of epistemology and soteriology. The presentation will stay close to what Shankara actually said and avoid speculative interpretations of his thought, such as how Advaita Vedanta might be meaningfully adapted so as to suit the needs of modern Westerners. For the most part I will draw upon Shankara's commentaries on the Brahma Sutra and Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, perhaps his most important works, but I will also refer to his other writings. What follows will consist of translations of some of the more pertinent meta-theoretical discussions in Shankara's works followed by commentary upon selected passages. At times, I have modified and condensed Shankara's discussions so as to clarify their meaning. The translations are often not literal but I think I have faithfully encapsulated Shankara's sense. I invite readers to consult the standard translations of Thibaut and Madhavananda, both of which are fairly reliable.

I. Epistemology and Authority

A. Perception

Shankara begins his introduction to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad by delineating the domains of revelation and worldly knowledge. With respect to the former, he says the Vedas have authority in two areas: with regard to the knowledge of the brahmanic ritual, which ultimately aims at attainment of the heaven-world (svarga), and with regard to soteriological knowledge, which aims at the highest end of man -- release (moksha). Here, Shankara acknowledges that the Vedas do not have authority in the worldly domain of practical affairs:

The Vedas are devoted to teaching the correct means to attain what is beyond the range of reason or perception. As for matters within the range of worldly experience, perception and reason alone are valid but not the Vedas.... Thus the Upanishads give instruction about the Self...


Because the Self transcends the worldly means of knowledge, it is only known by way of revealed scripture (shruti; agama), i.e., the Vedas (Brahma Sutra Bhasya 1.1.3; 2.1.3; 2.1.6; Brhad Up Bhashya 3.3.1; 3.9.26; 4.4.20; 4.4.22 etc.). Specifically the Self is known through those scriptures that teach about the nature of the Self, i.e., the Upanishads. The other means of knowledge, such as reasoning, can help in the imparting of such knowledge, but they are not valid sources of knowledge about the nature of the Self when they are not guided by scripture.

Early in Shankara's introduction to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, an objector asks if the self is not known from perception:

Interlocutor: Is not the existence of the self a matter of perception (pratyaksha)?

Answer: No, for we see a divergence of views (vadi-viprati) on the matter. The Buddhists and materialists, for example, dispute the existence of the self. So it cannot be a matter of perception for no one disputes the existence of a real object before oneself, like a jar held in one's hand.

Here, Shankara makes use of one of his favourite arguments against the worldly means of knowledge. When the worldly means of knowledge are extended beyond their legitimate application and delve into areas that are not their domain, they descend into conflict. Here, he points out that the nature of the self cannot be a matter of perception since we find so many different theories as to the nature of the self. If it were simply a matter of perception, we would not find so many different theories.

The question of the perception of the self is also raised in the opening sections of the Brahma Sutra commentary. There, Shankara says that though the Self, or brahman, is a reality (vastu), it is not an object (vishaya) of knowledge. At Brahma Sutra 1.1.2, an interlocutor suggests that if brahman is a reality, it ought to be an object of perception:

Interlocutor: Well then, if brahman be a real thing it should be amenable to the means of knowledge like perception (pratyaksha).

Answer: No, for brahman is not an object of sensory (indriya) perception.

The primary reason that Shankara gives as to why the Self cannot be seen is that it has no form (rupa). But generally, Shankara holds that the Self cannot be an object of knowledge because the Self is the pure subject (vishayin), and as such, it cannot become an object of knowledge. Here, Shankara basically follows the teaching of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which says that the Self, as the Seer (drashtr), is never the seen (Brhad Up 3.7.23) as one cannot see that which is the Seer of sight (Brhad Up 3.4.2).

On the other hand, Shankara likens the knowledge that derives from scripture as akin to perceptual knowledge. On this point, he follows the Brahma Sutra itself, which, at 1.3.28, refers to scripture as "perception" (pratyaksha):

Only those who have quelled their conceit (shanta-darpa) and who follow the revealed scripture (shruti) are able to determine the meaning of scriptural passages concerning the nature of the gods and so on, as if they were the objects of perception (pratyaksha-vishaya). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.6)
Likewise, Shankara says that scriptures concerned with knowledge of the Self teach by informing about the nature of the Self. In this regard, scriptural knowledge is akin to ostensive demonstration and perception:

But the teachings concerning brahman instruct by merely indicating, in a manner analogous to indicating some object of sight (aksha). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.1)
Shankara also says that knowledge of brahman is like direct perception in that the cognition of brahman, like perception, is dependent upon a real thing, and not on some human construct:

Knowledge (vidya) of brahman is... dependent upon reality (vastu-tantra), like the other valid means of knowledge such as perception (pratyaksha). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)

B. Apperception

But is the Self not known from apperception? Shankara acknowledges that reflexive awareness or apperception (aham-pratyaya, literally, the "I-cognition") can give knowledge of the existence of the self. But apperception cannot give specific knowledge about the nature of the Self. Shankara states that we do indeed know that the self exists from the fact of apperception. But he adds that though apperception demonstrates that the self exists, it does not tell us about the specific nature of the Self. Again, to back this claim, he points to the conflict of opinion as to the nature of the self:

Interlocutor: Is this brahman known to exist or not? If it is not known to exist, then how can we enter into enquiry about something that we know absolutely nothing about?

Answer: It is known to exist, for brahman is the self of all, and no one says, "I do not exist" (na na aham asmi iti).

Interlocutor: Well, then, there is no need for further enquiry, since the self is known (from apperception).

Answer: No, for there is a conflict of opinion (vipratipatti) as to the specific (vishesha) nature of the self. The materialists think it is the body; some think it is the senses endowed with the quality of sentience; others say that it is merely the stream of cognitive moments; others again say it is empty...and so on. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.1)
Here, Shankara raises the issue as to what, specifically, the Self is. This is important because the answer to this question will give content to the teaching of the Upanishads and at the same time allow it to be distinguished from other teachings.

At Brahma Sutra 1.1.4, the question as to whether or not the Self is known from apperception is raised once again. Here, the objector wishes to do away with the necessity of scripture. In his answer, Shankara argues from the transcendent nature of the Self:

Interlocutor: It is not necessary to say that the Self is known only from the Upanishads because it is the object of apperception (aham-pratyaya).

Answer: No, because the Self is the transcendent witness of apperception. The Self, which is the witness of apperception, cannot be apprehended by any of the other means of knowing such as reasoning.
Here, Shankara makes it clear that the witness is not some kind of reflexive "state of consciousness" or "introspection." As the witness, the Self is the transcendental condition of such states; this is what Shankara means when he says that the Self "sees" or witnesses the I-cognition (aham-pratyaya) and when he speaks of the "Seer of sight." Since the Self is the condition for the possibility of such states, it cannot be known by way of them, any more than a tumbler can stand on his own shoulders.

While Shankara admits apperception, he does not accept the doctrine of apperception (svasamvedana) that the Vijnanavadins epsouse. The Vijnanavadins hold that cognition (vijnana) illumines both its object and itself. Though in a similar manner Shankara refers to the Self as self-luminous (svayam-jyotir), this does not mean transcendental apperception (svasamvedana) for him; it merely means that the Self needs no other of light than itself. At several points in his commentaries, Shankara rejects the possibility of transcendental apperception on the grounds noted above: the Self does not directly intuit the Self because the Self cannot become an object of knowledge, anymore than a eye can see itself, a knife, cut itself, fire, burn itself, or a tumbler stand on his own shoulders.

On the question of whether or not the inner self (pratyag-atman) is known by way of apperception, Shankara is less clear and his statements are somewhat paradoxical. Following Kena Upanishad 1.4, Shankara says that the Self is neither known nor entirely unknown (Upadeshasahashri 1.15.48-49; Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4).

In his comments on Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.2, which states, "we cannot see the Seer of sight," Shankara says it is not possible to see the inner self, which is the "Seer of sight" (pratyagatmanam drsterdrastaram na pashyeh). Elsewhere, in the comments at Brhad Up 1.4.10, an interlocutor asks if it is not contradictory to speak of Self-knowledge when, as the scripture says, we cannot see the Seer of sight. In his response, Shankara says that there is no contradiction. The Self is simply known as the Seer of sight. And when this is understood, the desire to see the Self falls away as an impossiblity (asambhava). Self-knowledge does not mean that the Self is an object of knowledge (vishayi-karana). The same objection is posed in the comments at Brhad Up 4.4.20. There, the Upanishad itself says that the Self is to be understood as eternal and one. It then says that the Self is unknowable (apramaya):
Interlocutor: But it is not contradictory to say that the self is known (jnayata) and then say it is unknowable (aprameya)?

Answer: There is no fault here. When the scripture says that the Self is not an object of knowledge (aprameya) this means that it is not known by any means of knowledge (pramana) other than scripture (agama). Identity with the self that is immediate (sakshat-atma-bhava) is not something that needs to be achieved (kartavya) because it is already existing (vidyamanatvat). For everyone is always already (nitya) identical with the Self (atmabhava).

And yet, at the same time, early in his introduction to the Brahma Sutra, Shankara admits that the inner self (pratyag-atman) does, in a way, present itself:

Interlocutor: How it is that the mind and body can be superimposed upon the Self when the Self is not an object; superimposition only occurs with respect to objects.

Answer: The Self is not absolutely (atyanta) a non-object, since, in a way, it appears as the "object" (vishaya) of the I-cognition, and because the inner self presents itself with a kind of immediacy (aparokshatva).

This last turn of phrase is a reference to Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1, which refers to the self as immediately present (sakshat). In his comments at 3.4.1, Shankara says that this means that the inner self is well known or common knowledge (prasiddha).

In his comments on Gita 2.18, Shankara brings these two conceptions together. Gita 2.18 says that the transcendent reality, or supreme Self, is unknowable (aprameya). Shankara comments as follows:

The Self is unknowable means it is not an object of knowledge; that is, it is not definitely determinable (parichedya) by the regular means of knowledge (pramana) like perception (pratyaksha), etc.

Interlocutor: The self is determinable by scripture and by perception prior to scripture.

Answer: This is not entirely true, for the Self is self-established (svatahsiddha). Only when the self, as the knower (pramatr), is established (siddha) can the search for knowledge begin. For objects of knowledge are not determinable when the self, as the "I am," is not known. And it is not the case that the self not well known (aprasiddha) to anyone. Scripture, which is authoritative, teaches by merely removing what has been falsely superimposed upon the Self, not by indicating something (entirely) unknown.

Thus, though the Self is known only from scripture, scripture is not "proof" of the Self. The Self does not need of such "evidence" since it is self-established (svatah-siddha). And because it is self-established, it is also well known (prasiddha). As Shankara makes clear in the above, the Self is the condition of the possibility of knowledge; as such, it cannot itself become an object of knowledge. But as the condition of knowledge, it is, in a sense, "known" in all acts of knowledge (see Kena Upanishad Bhashya 2.4). It cannot be seen, and yet it shows itself through a kind of self-presentation whenever there is knowledge.

Nonetheless, though the Self is known directly (sakshat) in this manner, it is not seen for what it is in itself. As Gita 15.10 says, the deluded (vimudha) do not recognize the (anupashyati) the true nature of the Self. In Shankara's psychology, the individual (jiva) is a combination of the "I-sense" (ahamkara), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), etc., on the one hand, and the inner self (pratyag-atman), the true and essential core of the individual, on the other. As noted above, Shankara calls the inner self (pratyag-atman) the "object" (vishaya) of the I-cognition (aham-pratyaya). What this means is that the I-cognition "denotes" the Self. How so? For Shankara, the Self is of the nature of consciousness, and because of its power to illuminate, is likened to light (prakasha; jyotir). This light illuminates the inner organ (antahkarana) and all objects of knowledge (prameya). The intellect (buddhi) catches some of this light and a "reflection" (chaya; pratichaya; abhasa) of the Self appears in the intellect. This reflection is the basis of the "I-sense." But due to ignorance (avidya), the functions (vyapara) of the inner organ (i.e., mind and intellect) are mixed up (mishra-bhuta) with the inner self (Brhad Up Bhashya 4.3.9). The true nature of the Self should be discernable by way of discrimination (viveka). But because of the conflation (samkirnatvat) of the Self with the mental self, it is not possible to determine (avadharitum) the true nature of the Self (Brhad Up Bashya 2.1.15). Thus, due to non-discrimination (aviveka), the Self is thought to be a knower (pramatr), doer (kartr), enjoyer (bhoktr), etc. when in truth it is none of these. In reality, the Self and its various limiting adjuncts (upadhi) -- the body, senses, vital airs, mind, intellect, I-sense -- are absolutely distinct (vivikta).

It is for this reason that a teaching (upadesha) based upon revelation (shruti) is required. Only in this way can the true nature of the Self be indicated. Shankara's general position is that knowledge of the nature of the Self needs the guidance of scripture. As he says in his comments on Brahma Sutra 4.1.2, the "Thou," in the scriptural formula "Thou are That," initially refers, for the student, to the inner self (pratyag-atman) understood as an agent and so on, but later it is finally ascertained as the nature of pure consciousness (chaitanya). Similarly, in his comments on Gita 8.3, Shankara says that the Self is first (pravrttam) presented as the inner self (pratyag-atman) and later, this presentation culminates (avasana) in ultimate reality (paramartha), that is, in the supreme Self (paramatman). In his comments on the Katha Upanishad, Shankara notes that this "continuum," from the inner self to the supreme self (paramatman), is known as the "adhya-atma." Thus, though the inner self presents itself with a kind of indeterminate immediacy, its true nature can only be indicated by means of scripture.

C. Experience

What about direct experience (anubhava)? Is the self not known through direct experience? While Shankara does admit that the self is known through a kind of direct experience, it is important to note that for him, this experience is carefully circumscribed by the Vedic revelation (shruti). One passage where Shankara speaks explicitly about experience (anubhava) occurs in the opening sections of the Brahma Sutra. He says:

But Vedic revelation (shruti) is not the only valid means of knowledge in the enquiry into brahman; both scripture and direct experience (anubhava) are, since brahma-jnana has its culmination (avasana) in direct experience (anubhava) and because it has an established reality (bhuta-vastu) as its object. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)
Wilhelm Halbfass comments on the above: "This passage... is as significant as it is ambiguous and elusive" ("The Concept of Experience," India and Europe). One way to approach the question as to what Shankara means by "experience" here is to eliminate various possibilities.

For one, Shankara is not talking about a spontaneous mystical experience arising independently of the teaching (upadesha) of the Upanishads. Though he speaks of experience existing alongside scripture, he is also careful to say that this experience is the culmination of brahma-jnana. Since he refers to "culmination" here, the term "brahma-jnana" in the above passage refers to both the path of knowledge (jnana-marga), i.e., the inquiry into brahman (brahma-jijnasa), as well as to the final cognition of brahman. For Shankara, and the classical Vedanta in general, such inquiry always occurs in accordance with scripture since the Self can only be known from scripture. Thus, what he is saying here is that a particular cognition, fully comparable to direct experience, is the culmination of hearing (shravava), thinking (manana), and contemplating (nididhyasana) upon the meaning (artha) of the words (vakya) of the Upanishads.

Shankara also does not speak of this "experience" as some sort of "pure consciousness event" like the asamprajnata samadhi of the yogins. He is aware of the existence of such states, and though he associates samadhi with the state of deep sleep, wherein the jivatman temporarily "merges" with brahman, he does not associate brahma-jnana-anubhava with samadhi. We will deal with samadhi and meditation below.

Nor does Shankara refer to his own mystical experience or the personal attainment of extraordinary states of consciousness when he speaks of "anubhava." We may wonder why it is that Shankara does not refer to his own "experience." Similar questions have been asked of Meister Eckhart, Nagarjuna and others. This may strike us as odd, until we realize that the importance of "personal experience" has a relatively recent history. Wilhelm Halbfass comments astutely on this point:

The historically and philosophically significant question is not whether or how Shankara privately valued "personal experience," but why and how he tried to anchor it in a text, the Veda, and how he experienced this text itself as an objective revelation or epiphany that guides and anticipates all legitimate "personal experiences..." "The Concept of Experience," in India and Europe, p. 391.

The allusion to brahma-jnana as a kind of "experience" implies is that brahma-jnana, when fully developed as the final realization (samyag-darshana) of brahman, is akin to the direct perception of a real object, which is precisely what Shankara says in the passage above that speaks of brahman as an established reality (bhuta-vastu). Though this knowledge is direct, like perception, it is not contentless or indeterminate. It has as its content the identity of the inner self (pratyag-atman) with the supreme Self (paramatman). And it is determinate in that it indicates the specific (vishesha) nature (svabhava) of the supreme Self. These two facets are coordinated by Shankara in the first prose portion of his Upadeshasahashri. There, he says that once the qualifications for inquiry are met, the student should be taught the oneness of the Self (2.1.6); and then after this, the specific nature of brahman should be taught (2.1.7). Likewise, in his comments on Brahma Sutra 4.1.2, Shankara says that the experience of the Self (atma-anubhava) consists of the knowledge, "I am pure consciousness, one, and free from all suffering." (sarvaduhkhanirmukta-eka-chaitanya-atmako 'hamityesha atma-anubhavah). Shankara's favorite description of the nature (svabhava) of the Self is the compound "eternal, pure, awakened, and free" (nitya-shuddha-buddha-mukta). This specific nature is important for Shankara because it distinguishes the Advaita Vedantin's conception of self from that of the Buddhists and others.

Though this knowledge is determinate, it is, for Shankara, also immediate or direct, and it is for this reason that he refers to it as an "experience" (anubhava). Shankara likens this immediacy to the recognition or realization experienced by the "tenth boy," who, after counting his party several times to see if they have all safely crossed a river, neglects to count himself and thereby fails to see that he is the tenth -- until it is pointed out to him, "You are the tenth!" The example shows how it is possible for there to be a cognitive realization that is immediate and direct, and yet at the same time determinate, meaningful and with content.

In his comments on Chandogya 7.1.3, Shankara attempts to clarify the nature of this determinacy. The context is one in which there is a question as to how it is that the word "atma" denotes the Self:

Interlocutor: Is the Self not denoted by the term "atma?"

Answer: No. The Self is beyond description; as the Taittiriya Up says (2.4.1), "that from which words are turned away..."

Interlocutor: Then how do words denote the Self?

Answer: Though strictly speaking the Self cannot be denoted, the inner self is "denoted" by virtue of it being the remainder (pratishishta) once the adventitious conditions falsely associated with the Self are negated, just as there is the determinate specification (vishesha) of a king once his subjects are ruled out, even if we do not actually see the king.

But, it may be said, transcendent reality is beyond distinction and differentiation (nirvishesha). How can the Self be so determined? This is one of the central paradoxes in Shankara's thought. In a similar way, Shankara says that the Self is said to be discriminated (viveka) from its limiting adjuncts (upadhi), and that brahman is distinct (vyatireka) from name and form (nama-rupa). And yet brahman and the Self are also said to be beyond difference (abheda). In his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.34, Shankara briefly discusses this problem. There he says that difference (bheda) does not actually belong to brahman but is metaphorically said to apply to the relationship (sambandha) between brahman and its limiting adjuncts (upadhi). In reality, however, there is no real conjunction (samyoga) or contact (samparka) between brahman and its limiting adjuncts, for all relation (sambandha) is but a projection of ignorance (avidya). This same idea underlies the asparsha-yoga described in the Gaudapada Karika: In reality, the Self remains untouched (asparsha) by the effects of ignorance as its true nature is without a second (advaita) and beyond all relation (sambandha).

D. Independent Reasoning and the Conflict of Reason

In the opening sections of the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra, Shankara deals with the Samkhya and Yoga schools. It is this context that he treats reason as an independent means of knowledge. Here, an objection is raised that reasoning is closer to direct experience than scripture:

Interlocutor: Reason (yukti) allows us to determine something unseen (adrshta) on the basis of its accordance (samya) with what is already seen (drshta); in this sense it is closer to, and in accord with (samnikrshyate), direct experience (anubhava). Scripture (shruti), though, is less in accord and more remote (viprakrshyate) since it transmits (abhidhana) its meaning indirectly by oral tradition (aitihya). And, since inquiry (which makes use of reasoning) culminates in direct experience, its result is something seen (drshta), and so reasoning is applicable. Moreover, scripture itself says that the self is "to be enquired into" (mantavya) and thus it enjoins reflection (manana), showing that reasoning (tarka) is applicable. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.4)
Shankara gives his answer to this objection in his comments on Brahma Sutra 2.1.6:

Answer: Although brahman is an established (parinishpanna) reality, because it is without form (rupa), it is not within the range (gocara) of perception (pratyaksha); and because it has no inferable marks (linga), it, as such, is not subject to inference (anumana). It can only be known through revealed scripture (agama). As the Katha Upanishad says, "This one cannot be attained through reasoning (tarka)" (Katha Up 1.2.9). And as the Gita says, "Neither the gods nor the maharshis know of my origin" (Gita 10.2). The passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, "the self is to be enquired into," should not be taken as referring to the application of autonomous (shushka; literally, arid or fruitless) reasoning (tarka), but to reasoning in accord with scripture (shruti-anugrhita) and as an auxiliary to direct experience (anubhava).
Shankara often points out in his commentaries that independent reasoning gives rise to conflicting theories. He derives this idea from the Gaudapada Karika (3.17), which is, no doubt, influenced by Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita on this point. In his commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad he writes:

Those logicians who reject the authority of revealed scripture (agama) give conflicting (viruddha) statements about the nature of the self -- that it is a doer, that it is not a doer, that it exists, that it doesn't exist, and so on -- and confound (akulikrta) the meaning of the shastras, and thereby make its purport difficult to grasp. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhasya 1.4.6)
Shankara's most developed statement of this idea of the conflict of reason occurs in the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra:

With respect to matters that are only to be known from revealed scripture (agama), independent reasoning (kevala-tarka) is not to be relied upon for the following reason: reasoning (tarka) that is without the guidance of revelation (agama) and instead attached only to human imagination/speculation (purusha-utpreksha) is without basis (apratishtata), because speculation (utpreksha) is without restraint (nirankusha; literally, "without a crook;" the image is of a lost sheep wandering about). For we see that the metaphysical arguments of clever men are shown by more intelligent men to be fallacious, and how these in their turn are refuted by still others; and so, there is no possibility of a foundation for reason (tarka) bereft of the guidance of revelation, because of the diversity of human views (purusha-mati-vairupya) on such matters. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.11)
Shankara's language in this passage is much like that used by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya (1.34). As an interesting aside, Bhartrhari also points out that much the same can be said with respect to the various interpretations of scripture. There is also the matter, first pointed out by the materialists of ancient India, that the Vedas themselves make all sorts of contradictory (vyaghata) statements. With respect to the problem of conflicting statements occurring within the scriptures, Shankara's approach toward them is to order them hierarchically in accordance with the principle of "harmonization" (samanvaya). On the problem of the conflict of interpretations of scripture, he is less clear. Although he follows the Mimamsakas with respect to the worldly means of knowledge and with regard to the nature of brahmanic ritual, with respect to ultimate soteriological concerns, he treats the Mimamsakas with the same regard he extends toward the other logicians (tarkika), i.e., with contempt. As for rival interpretations of the Vedanta, his approach is simply to reject the idea that there is any valid interpretation of scripture other than the non-dualist interpretation. He suggests that other interpretations are not "attuned" to the ultimate meaning and spirit of the scriptures, though he often defends his case by means of citation and logical argumentation. In any case, though interesting, such problems are beyond the scope of the present study.

E. The Authority of the Siddhas

As noted already, the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra deals with rival schools and sampradayas; in particular, it is concerned with the Samkhya. Its approach is first to question the authority and integrity of the source-texts of these other schools and then to refute their arguments. We have already looked at Shankara's general attitude toward independent reasoning. As for the secondary sources (Smrti), since they are attributed to various sages, the Brahma Sutra's tack here is to question the authority of the founders of these schools:

Interlocutor: Your account does not leave open the possibility of the authority of the Smrti-texts, such as the Yoga Sutras and the Samkhya source-texts, or the authority of rishis like Kapila. The Samkhya is also not concerned with things that are "to be done" but only with true knowledge, which is the means to release. But there is no room in your account for the texts of the Samkhya and so they thereby become meaningless. Since many people cannot understand the meaning of the shruti-texts, they rely on the Smrti-texts, which are composed by recognized authorities (prakhyata-pranatr). And the knowledge (jnana) of such men, like Kapila, is said to be unobstructed (aprahita) like that of the rishi (arsha).

Answer: If we admit your doctrine, then it, in turn, will render other Smrti-doctrines useless (like the "Vedantic" portions of the Gita, e.g.). And it is not possible for someone to perceive (upalabhate) super-sensory (ati-indriya) objects (artha) without the aid of revelation (shrutim-antarena), because there are no means (nimitta) to do so.

Interlocutor: It is possible in the case of siddhas like Kapila because they have unobstructed (aprahita) knowledge (jnana).

Answer: No, because powers (siddhi) such as super-sensory perception are dependent upon certain practices (anushthana) and such practices are characterized by things that are "to be done" (codana). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.1)
Here, we can see that generally, Shankara does not accept the authority of sages who themselves do not recognize the Vedas as ultimately authoritative. This section of the Brahma Sutra is concerned with refuting rival schools on their own terms, but we can see here that where the authority of source-texts is concerned, there is very little that can be said when two parties simply disagree as to which source is authoritative. Shankara's argument here would appear to be that it is inconsistent to say that the Samkhya is not concerned with things that are "to be done" when its own authority is dependent upon its founding sages acquiring various siddhis, which are dependent upon things "to be done." Interestingly, as the passage continues, Shankara accuses the Samkhya of inventing the idea that Kapila was a siddha and then retrospectively reading his authority back into the tradition.

In the next passage, Shankara resorts once again to his favorite prasanga-style argument as to why sources other than the Vedas are not authoritative. Having dispensed with the validity of reasoning independent of scripture, he turns to the suggestion that the authority of the sages might serve as a foundation:

Nor can we count on some recognized (prasiddha) sage (mahatmya) like Kapila, since even here there will be no foundation, because the teachings of these recognized sages (mahatmya), as well as the founders of the other schools (tirthakara, i.e., the Buddha, Mahavira, etc.), all mutually contradict one another (paraspara-vipratipatti). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.11)

Elsewhere, Shankara develops this argument, expanding on its implications. He then goes on to contrast revelation (shruti) with the secondary sources (Smrti):

Besides, even assuming that we can trust in the authority of these siddhas, because they instruct by way of so many different doctrines (bahu-siddhanta), their teachings will all be in conflict (vipratipatti) with one another. And then, as people are multiform (vaishvarupa) in their opinion (mati), (if we accept these teachings) the undesirable consequence (prasanga) will follow that truth (tattva) will be unregulated and without basis (avyapasthana). The Vedic revelation, on the other hand, is an absolutely independent (nirapeksham) and self-constituting authority (svarthe pramanyam). But human dicta (purusha-vacasam) are dependent upon an external basis and mediated (vyavahita) by memory (smrti) and discourse (vaktr; literally: 'talkers'). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.1)
Here, Shankara relates the term for the secondary sources, Smrti, to its more basic sense: memory (smrti). What he is saying is that memory and verbal transmission form the basis of Smrti. (This is precisely what the interlocutor above had said about scripture, that it requires transmission (aithya).) In his commentary on Shankara's Bhashya, Vacaspati Mishra relates the issue back to the authority of the siddhas and brings "experience" (anubhava) into the equation. His argument appears to be that even though these siddhas may have various transcendent experiences, they are still required to remember those experiences, translate what they mean into a teaching, and then transmit that teaching to students. Here, being human as they are, this process may be fallible. He concludes that experience and memory (anubhvava-smrti) are less direct than scripture. Here, interestingly enough, we do have a explicit reference to the idea that the teachings of certain siddhas may be based upon their "experience." But the context is clearly one in which the authority of the siddhas is in question, which is to say that the need for authority is the actual source of the idea. And it is explicitly denied by the Vedantins that scripture has such a basis.

II. Soteriology

A. Knowledge vs. Action

Shankara's commentary upon the first four sutras of the Brahma Sutra constitutes his most basic statement of his interpretation of Vedanta. There, the over-riding concern is the relation between action (karma) and knowledge (jnana), duty (dharma) and release (moksha). The next two passages deal with the general difference between action and knowledge. Here, Shankara rejects the idea that the Upanishads teach an injunction to know the Self:

The fruits (phala) of religious duty (dharma) are transitory (anitya) since they are dependent (apeksha) upon the performance of certain practices (anushthana). But the fruit of the knowledge (jnana) of brahman, which is release (moksha), is permanent (nitya) since it is not dependent upon such actions. Religious practices involve that which is to be brought into being (bhavya), and they depend upon human effort and activity (purusha-vyapara). But the object of enquiry here, brahman, is something that is already existent (bhuta), for it is always-already (nitya). Scriptures dealing with religious and spiritual practices instruct people by enjoining (niyujyan) them to act. But the teachings concerning brahman instruct by merely indicating, in a manner analogous to indicating some object of sight (aksha).... Now, the Upanishads teach that the highest end of man is realized by the knowledge of brahman, which destroys ignorance and ends samsara. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 1.1.1)

Things that are "to be done" (kartavya) are dependent upon man (purusha-adhina). But there can be no option (vikalpana) with respect to what is really existing (vastu). Choosing whether to do something or not is entirely dependent (apeksha) upon the human intellect and will (purusha-buddhi-tantra). But the knowledge (jnana) of a real thing as it is in itself (vastu-yatha-atmya) is not dependent upon the mind of man; it is dependent upon the reality of the thing (vastu-tantra).... Just as validity with respect to really existing things depends upon the things themselves, so it is with brahma-jnana; it is dependent upon reality alone, because it has as its object an established reality. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)

In the next passage, Shankara deals with a rival interpretation of the Vedanta, an interpretation that holds that knowledge in conjunction with action (jnana-karma-samuchaya) is the means to release. Almost all of the other Vedantins of Shankara's period held this teaching. Most of them -- such as Bhartrprapanca, Shankara's principle rival, and later, Bhaskara -- were bheda-abheda-vadins. But Mandana Mishra, the great Advaitin and contemporary of a Shankara, also held a version of this teaching. Here, Shankara is most likely addressing the bheda-abheda-vadins, who held a doctrine of gradual release (krama-mukti) as opposed to the doctrine of release in this life (jivan-mukti):

Interlocutor: The Vedas instruct about brahman but only in so far as that instruction is connected to injunctions (vidhi) to practice (karya).... Moksha arises due to ritually prescribed devotion and meditation (upasana). If the Vedic revelation only concerns declarations about what is, there will be nothing to be avoided and nothing to strive for (hana-upadana).... Moreover, we see that sometimes those who have only heard (shruta) about brahman continue to be affected by samsara. Moreover the scripture says that the self is not only to be heard, but to be enquired into (mantavya) and contemplated (nididhyasitavya). Therefore, enquiry and contemplation are enjoined by injunctions.

Answer: No. Those who practice the ritual meditations in conjunction with esoteric knowledge only attain as high as Brahma-loka, which is a temporary state.... But moksha is eternal. If moksha were dependent upon such practices and activities, it would be impermanent. And the scriptures say that release follows immediately (anantara) from the knowledge of brahman.... Knowledge of brahman is not dependent upon human activity (purusha-vyapara); it is dependent upon reality, like the other valid means of knowledge such as perception (pratyaksha).... For this reason, moksha is not something attained (prapta), like an effect (karya) brought about (utpadya) in some way; and it does not involve some kind of transformation (vikara) of the self; nor is it a gradual union or mental identification (sampad) with brahman; nor does it involve some kind of gradual purification (samskara) of the self, like the polishing of a mirror. Moksha is nothing but the identity of the self with brahman. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 1.1.4)
Here, Shankara rejects four different soteriological theories concerning the "cause" of release. Though moksha is described as a "fruit" (phala) of knowledge, Shankara does not accept that it is an effect (karya). For the same reason he rejects the idea that it is a "transformation" of the self; nor does it involve some form of purification, though he accepts purification as a secondary, indirect means. He also regards the mental identification of the self with brahman as an artificial mental product. Release is nothing but the realization that the inner self is none other than the supreme Self.

In the next passage, an objection is raised concerning the nature of knowledge. Here, as in his introduction to the Chandogya Upanishad, he admits that knowledge involves mental action; but, he insists, knowledge is essentially different from such action:

Interlocutor: But knowledge too is a kind a kind of mental action (manasi kriya).

Answer: No. The two are different in nature. For such action is not dependent upon the nature of some real thing (vastu); it is dependent (adhina) upon the operation (vyapara) of the human mind (purusha-citta). Meditation (dhyana) and consideration (cintana) are mental (manasam), but because they are dependent upon man, they can either be performed or not. But knowledge has as its object a real thing (bhuta-vastu); it is not something man-made, but relates to reality only. It is not grounded in injunctions (codana), nor is it dependent upon the merely human. Thus, although knowledge involves the mental (manasatva) it is completely different from it. The mental state involved in the meditation "man and woman are the fire" described in the ritual portions of the Vedas is a human activity since it is dependent upon injunctions (codana). But the cognition (buddhi) of fire itself is not dependent upon the injunctions of the Vedas nor upon anything man-made; it is dependent upon a real thing, which becomes an object of perception. It is thus a form of knowledge (jnana) which is not like an action (kriya). The self is not something to be strived after, nor does it involve avoiding anything; and the knowledge concerning it is not something that needs to be performed or effected. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)
In the above, Shankara provides a rather stark and absolute disinction between knowledge and action. At yet in his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.4.26-27; 33; and 35, he admits a role for action. Some have suggested that Shankara contradicts himself here. But what he is saying is that action is merely an indirect means. Basically, Shankara is constrainted by the Brahma Sutra itself which itself probably held to something like jnana-karma-samuchaya.

Shankara's commentary on the Gita is important because it is here that he explains the relationship between those means that he does not consider direct and those means he does consider direct. In his introduction to the Gita, he states this relationship clearly:

When the Lord created the world he first made Prajapati and others and had them to practice the dharma of the path of action (pravrtti). He then created others and had them adopt the dharma associated with the cessation of action (nivrtti) characterized by knowledge (jnana) and renunciation (vairagya). This twofold Vedic dharma sustains the cosmos and leads to both prosperity and happiness on the one hand, and the highest end of man, moksha, on the other... The aim of the Gita is the highest end of man and the cessation of samsara. This comes about by devotion to knowledge (jnana-nishta) and the renunciation of karmic action. The path of action leads to prosperity in this world and rebirth in the deva-lokas. But when it is practised with complete devotion to the Lord and without any expectations (abhisamdhi) concerning its fruits (phala), the path of action is conducive to the purification of the heart, mind and intellect (sattva-shuddhi). The one whose inner organ has become clear and pure (shuddi-sattva) qualifies for the path of knowledge (jnana-nishta), which leads to the arising of knowledge (jnana). Thus, the path of action, too, is also a kind a means (hetu) to the highest end of man.

Here, Shankara admits a role for those yogas other than jnana-yoga or "devotion to knowledge" (jnana-nishta). Ultimately, they prepare the aspirant for the path of knowledge. In his Gita commentary, Shankara implies a distinction between nivrtti-marga and moksha-marga. He allows room for the various yogas of the Gita by assigning them a place in the moksha-marga. But these "means" are, nonetheless, ultimately distinguished from jnana-marga, which, properly speaking, is the only direct means to release.

II. The Threefold Means

In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, we read that the Self is to be known through hearing, thinking, and contemplating. In his commentary upon the Taittiriya Upanishad Shankara states that these three are to be considered direct means to release:

While austerity (tapas), celibacy (brahmacharya), and so on, are aids to purification, they are not direct means to release, while hearing, consideration, and contemplation of the meaning of the shastras are direct means to moksha. (Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashya 1.11.2-4)

Perhaps the first point to be noticed here, is that consideration and contemplation are to be practiced strictly in accordance with what has been "heard" (shruta), that is, in accordance with scripture (shruti). Meditation is not, for Shankara, some kind of "experimental" method. It is only used to confirm the truth of scripture:

Realization is not possible through independent reasoning (anumana), nor any of the other means of knowledge (pramana), though reasoning is applicable so long as it does not contradict (virodha) the Upanishads (vedanta-vakya). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)

Just as enquiry (manana) through reasoning (tarka) must be accord with scripture (agama), so too contemplation (nididhaysana) must be in accord with scripture and with what has been determined through enquiry. The idea of contemplation being something independent and separate (prthak) is meaningless (anarthaka). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 5.5.1)

We have disussed the role of reasoning in the inquiry into brahman (brahma-jijnasa) above and will discuss contemplation, meditation and yoga in greater detail below. Before continuing it should be pointed out that "discussion" is one of the senses of the term "vichara." Thus, when Shankara speaks of "vichara" we can also take it as referring to discussion:

The realization (avagati) of brahman follows from ascertaining (adhyavasana) the meaning (artha) of pertinent passages (vakya) from the Upanishads after their consideration and discussion (vicharana). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)

Shankara often talks of the role of the teacher (acharya) in instruction and the compounds "acharya-agama" and "shastra-acharya" occur throughout his works. In his commentary upon the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad he refers to the value of discussion:

Another traditional means of acquiring knowledge (vidya-prapti-upaya)... is association with those in possession of knowledge (vidvat). Association with these sages and discussing (vada-karana) with them increases one's understanding (prajna-vriddha). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 3.1.1)

Some matters... are difficult to understand, even for a group of panditas let alone someone by himself. Where the determination of subtle matters (dharma-sukshma) is concerned, it may be desirable to seek counsel (parishad), depending upon the abilities of those involved. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 4.3.2)

The next question to consider is whether inquiry and contemplation are necessary. Frankly, here, Shankara is not entirely consistent. At one point in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, he says that hearing is not enough:

The self is first to be heard (shrotavya), from scripture (agama) through a teacher (acharya), then considered (mantavya) through reasoning (tarka), and then contemplated (nididhyasitavya), that is, meditated upon (dhyatavya) with determination (nishchayena). It is seen (drshta) by the accomplishment of these means (sadhana), hearing, consideration, and contemplation. When there is the coincidence of these three, then the vision of truth (samyag-darshana), the oneness of brahman, can occur, but not otherwise, that is, with mere hearing (shravana-matra). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 2.4.5)
In his comments above, Shankara may simply be constrained by the content of the passage he is commenting upon. The overwhelming evidence, however, is in favour of the interpretation that hearing, in some cases, is sufficient:

Interlocutor: But hearing (shravana) about brahman needs to be followed by consideration (manana) and contemplation (nididhysana).

Answer: Not necessarily. Reflection and contemplation only serve the end (artha) of realization (avagati), just as is hearing does. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)

This point is reiterated by Shankara when he deals with the issue of repetition. In the Upadeshasahashri, the value of repetition is raised:

The means to moksha is knowledge. It should be repeatedly imparted until it is apprehended by the student. (Upadeshasahashri 2.1.2)

A passage from the Brahma Sutra commentary deals extensively with the issue of repetition. At the end of the passage, Shankara admits that for some, "hearing" is sufficient. Basically, the interlocutor argues that if brahman is like an object of perception, like a jar sitting on a table, of what use is repeated instruction? If you point out a jar to someone and they do not understand what you mean, what good will pointing it out again do?

Interlocutor: Of what use is repetition when the object of knowledge, the supreme brahman, is an established reality.... If the passage "Thou are That" does not impart knowledge the first time, what good will repetition do?

Answer: For the one who is unable to experience the true nature of brahman at first, repetition is useful. In the Chandogya Upanishad, for example, Svetaketu asks to be instructed several times.... For we see that some people only gradually come to a true understanding of the meaning (artha) of what they have heard by the removal of false understanding.... People wrongly superimpose various objects onto the self -- the body (deha), the senses (indriya), the mind (manas), and the intellect (buddhi). Thus by one act of inquiry, one of these parts is removed and by another act, another part is removed, and so on; and thus a kind of gradual cognition takes place, though it is prior to the actual cognition of the Self. But for those with an acute intelligence (nipuna-mati), the meaning of such phrases is not clouded over with ignorance, doubt and wrong knowledge, and they are able to intuit (anubhavitum) the meaning the first time they hear it; for them repetition is not needed. For once knowledge of the Self arises, ignorance is dispelled and in that case, gradual understanding is not necessary. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 4.1.2)

From this passage, it can be seen that Shankara admits a kind of subitism wherein enlightenment (atma-bodha) can happen "all at once."

III. Meditation and Contemplation

In his commentary on Brhadaranayaka Upanishad 1.4.7, Shankara considers various soteriological means other than knowledge of the Self. There, various forms and aspects of meditation, contemplation and yoga are discussed. One form of meditation that he rejects as not conducive to release is "upasana," a term used collectively to refer to the meditations, devotions and rituals of the jnana-karma-samuchaya Vedantins. We have seen how Shankara generally deals with the jnana-karma-samucaya-vada in the opening portions of the Brahma Sutra commentary. In his commentary on the Brhadaranayaka Upanishad he deals repeatedly with this interpretation of Vedanta, as well as with the brahmanic ritualists in general.

In the next passage, the jnana-karma-samucayin suggests that the Upanishads provide an injunction to practice a particular form of meditation (upasana) and that this meditation creates a special knowledge through which the Self is known:

Interlocutor: Ritually prescribed meditation (upasana) generates another knowledge, a special state of consciousness (vishishtam vijnana-antaram), and it is through this, and not merely through hearing scripture, that the Self is known.

Answer: This is wrong. The Vedic teaching, "the self is to be meditated upon" is not an injunction, and it does not enjoin this form of meditation, for nothing is to be done either inwardly or outwardly with regard to the Self. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.7)

Again, it is apparent that Shankara admits that in some cases, hearing is sufficient. In the above, Shankara reiterates that knowledge is not something "to be practiced" and that nothing needs "to be done" with respect to it.

This line of interogation continues in the following tract. Shankara begins by rejecting the idea that yoga is necessary to first calm the mind:

There is no other way to silence the mind than knowledge of the self and its continuous remembrance (smrti)... And no effort in involved in this...

Interlocutor: Is not the continuous (samtana) remembrance (smrti) of cognition (vijnana) of the self something different from knowledge arising from hearing and hence something enjoined?

Answer: No; and the remembrance of the self arises spontaneously. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.7)
Here, we encounter the idea that no effort is involved in knowledge of the Self. This idea is related to Shankara's suggestion that knowledge of the Self is like a form of perception. The idea is that no effort is required to see a jar that is before one, as long as the line of sight between oneself and the jar is not occluded. A more developed presentation of this idea is given in the Gita Bhashya:

The self is not something unknown to us at any time. It is not something to be acquired.... In this sense, for those who qualify, the devotion to knowledge (jnana-nishta) is easy... It is not for the knowledge of brahman that any effort (yatna) is required as something "to be done" (kartavya); it is only required for the cessation (nivrtti) of the false cognition of the Self, that is, of what the Self is not. (Gita Bhashya 18.55)

At this point, a consideration of what Shankara means by "contemplation" (nididhyasana) might be helpful. Generally, in English, the terms "meditation" and "contemplation" are used synonymously. And yet, the senses of the Latin terms "meditatio" and "contemplatio" are very different. Basically, the distinction between the two is the distinction between thinking and knowing, ratio and intellectus, or as the Greek has it, logos and nous, dianoia and episteme. In this sense, the terms "meditation" and "contemplation" make for useful translations of the Sanskrit terms "manana" and "nididhaysana." This distinction parallels Shankara's comments at Gita 3.42. There he distinguishes the functions of mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi). Mind (manas), he says, in involved in thinking (samkalpa/vikalpa), while intellect (buddhi) is concerned with ascertaining (nischaya). As noted above, Shankara asscociates contemplation (nididhyasana) with determination (nischaya).

That "nididhyasana" is actually a kind of knowing is also apparent in Shankara's own comments. The reference above to the "continuous (samtana) remembrance (smrti) of cognition (vijnana) of the self" (Brhad Up Bh) would appear to be a reference to contemplation (nididhyasana). This turn of phrase can be compared with the following two excerpts from his commentary on the Gita:

Meditation (dhyana) consists in a continuous (samtana) uninterrupted (avicchina) cognition (pratyaya), like a stream of flowing oil. (Gita Bhashya 13.24)

Devotion to knowledge (jnana-nistha) is intent application toward effecting the continuous (samtana) cognition (pratyaya) of the inner self (pratyag-atman). (Gita Bhashya 18.55)

Indeed, at times, Shankara omits the third "means" altogether and simply refers to the cognition of the Self in its place:

Through knowledge of brahman we become brahman, that is, through having heard (shrutva) from scripture (agama) and through a teacher (acharya), having considered (mantva) it through reason (tarka), and having cognized (vijnaya) it directly (sakshat). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 2.5.15)

To close this subsection, I would like to make a general comment about the nature of inquiry and meditation in the soteriology of Shankara. In modern Western appropriations of Advaita Vedanta, there is, among some, a tendency to regard "spiritual inquiry" and "meditation" as involving a kind of special, "supra-mental" process that somehow transcends "mere thought" and "intellection." I would suggest that this attitude arises from the fact that in modern Western appropriations of Advaita Vedanta, inquiry and meditation are lifted from their original, classical Indian context, a context that anchored such practices in scriptural revelation. For Shankara, there is nothing special or "transcendental" about inquiry or meditation as such. What sets his form of inquiry and meditation apart is that they are guided by the Vedic revelation. As far as he is concerned, inquiry and meditation become "special," if you wish, when they are in accord with scripture. But in certain forms of modern spirituality, reliance upon scriptural revelation is seen as "dogmatic." In that case, however, something is will be missing, something that distinguishes "inquiry" and "meditation," something that sets it apart from mere worldly "ratiocination." It is for this reason, I would suggest, that "inquiry" and "meditation" have come to be seen as some kind "esoteric" cognitive process. My point here is simply that this kind of mentality is missing in the soteriology of Shankara. Thinking and contemplation are what they are. When they are in accord with revealed scripture, they are valid means to knowledge of the Self; and when they are not in accord, they are not valid.

V. The Role of Yoga

Generally, Shankara rejects the idea that the classical yoga of Patanjali plays a direct soteriological role in the final end of man:

Interlocutor: Several Upanishads have enjoined (vihita) yoga as a means to the realization of truth (samyag-darshana). The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad itself implies meditation when it says, "the self is to be heard, considered and meditated upon." And the Yoga-shastra says that yoga is the correct view (samyag-darshana).

Answer: No. The Yoga tradition is only partly true. And yoga as such is not a direct means to the highest state. Only the knowledge (vijnana) of the oneness of the self (aikatmatva) as revealed by the Vedas gives moksha. The Samkhya and Yoga, which are dualist (dvaitin), do not reveal the oneness of the self (atmaikatva). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.3)

In his commentary on Brhadaranayaka Upanishad 5.5.1, Shankara speaks briefly of Patanjali's yoga:

Interlocutor: What about controlling the fluctuations of the mind-stuff (citta-vrtti-nirodha). Is it not enjoined?

Answer: No, and it is not a means to moksha. There are no other means to the attainment of the highest end than brahma-atma-jnana. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 5.5.1)

On the other hand, with respect to Shankara's attitude toward yoga, there are two passages in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya that stand out as anomalies. In his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.24, Shankara says that in perfect concentration (pranidhana), certain yogins see (pashyanti) the Self, free from all plurality (prapancha) and they do so by means of absorption (dhyana) and devotion (bhakti). He then goes on to refer to those passages from the Katha Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad and Mahabharata that speak of "seeing" the self while in meditation or through the purification of the mind. His commentary here parallels comments made at Brahma Sutra 3.2.5. There, Shankara says that occasionally, the supreme Lord (parameshvara) dispels the ignorance of those who meditate devotedly (abhidhyayate) on the Him and through his grace (prasada) these yogins are given extraordinary powers of "sight."

How are we to understand such passages? First, I think it is important to note that Shankara is, once again, constrained by the content of what he is commenting upon. This is to say that he is required to follow what the Brahma Sutra says here. But I think we can also understand what he says in light of his more attitude toward yoga as found in his commentary on the Gita.

In his comments on Gita 2.10, Shankara distinguishes karma-yoga and jnana-yoga. This parallels the distinction made by the Gita itself between Yoga and Samkhya. Here, "karma yoga" is used in a general sense to refer to any yoga of action. But in his comments at Gita 2.39. Shankara divides this yoga into karma-yoga proper and samadhi-yoga. In a similar manner, at Gita 6.2, Shankara distinguishes karma-yoga from dhyana-yoga. Now by "karma-yoga," we not mean the free giving of one's time to peel potatoes for the communal ashram, or charitably volunteering one's services at Mother Theresa's orphanage. Here, the term "karma" refers to the prescribed rites of brahmanism and "karma-yoga" means performing those rites while remaining detached (asanga) from their fruits (phala).

In his commentary on chapter 12 of the Gita, Shankara provides further distinctions. At 12.10-11 he distinguishes mere karma-yoga from karma-yoga practiced in conjunction with bhakti. And in his comments running from 12.6-9, he distinguishes mere dhyana-yoga from dhyana-yoga practiced in conjunction with bhakti. Thus, in his commentary on the Gita, Shankara provides a kind of hierarchy of yogas: karma-yoga; bhakti-karma-yoga; samadhi-yoga; and bhakti-samadhi-yoga.

This being the case, I take the comments at Brahma Sutra 3.2.24 and 3.2.5 as referring, in a conciliatory manner, to the practice of bhakti-dhyana yoga. Shankara acknowledges that in the case of some of those who practice this form of yoga, the Lord grants special powers of insight. But this yoga is still, properly speaking, only propaedeutic to jnana-yoga for Shankara. As we read on in his commentary, he makes it clear that such practices are still within the domain of duality. As he says in his comments at 3.2.6, the self is in fact not distinct from the Lord. And as he says at 3.2.25, there is, in truth, no one meditating and no one being meditated upon, as the Upanishads only really teach non-difference. In the end, then, though Shankara acknowledges the practice of yoga in this manner, it remains subordinate to the knowledge of the oneness of the self and brahman, which for Shankara, is the only true means to release.

For further discussion on the role of samadhi in Shankara's thought, see Micheal Comans' article "The Question of the Importance of Samadhi in Modern and Classical Advaita Vedanta"

This concludes the series of posts introductory to the forthcoming series on Neo-Vedanta.