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Mulavidya Controversy Among Advaitins

Mulavidya Controversy Among Advaitins

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Published by cumin
Article by Arun Murthi on Shankara's views on avidya
Article by Arun Murthi on Shankara's views on avidya

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Published by: cumin on Jul 20, 2013
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02/07/2014

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Abstract
The concept of 
avidya¯ 
or ignorance is central to the Advaita Veda¯nticposition of S´a
_
nkara. The post-S´a
_
nkara Advaitins wrote sub-commentaries on theoriginal texts of S´a
_
nkara with the intention of strengthening his views. Over thepassage of time the views of these sub-commentators of S´a
_
nkara came to be re-garded as representing the doctrine of Advaita particularly with regard to theconcept of 
avidya¯ 
. Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati, a scholar-monk of Hole-narsipur, challenged the accepted tradition through the publication of his wor
Mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ nira¯  sa
h
:
, particularly with regard to the
avidya¯ 
doctrine. It was hiscontention that the post-S´a
_
nkara commentators brought their own innovationsparticularly on the nature of 
avidya¯ 
. This was the idea of 
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
or ‘rootignorance’, a positive entity which is the material cause of the phenomenal world.Saraswati argues that such an idea of 
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
is not to be found in the
bha¯ 
 s
:
 yas
(commentaries) of S´a
_
nkara and is foisted upon S´a
_
nkara. This paper attempts to showthat although S´a
_
nkara may not have explicitly favoured such a view of 
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
,his lack of clarity on the nature of 
avidya¯ 
left enough scope for the post-S´a
_
nkaracommentators to take such a position on
avidya¯ .
Keywords
Adhya¯  sa
Á
Advaita
Á
Avidya¯ 
Á
Ignorance
Á
Mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
Á
Veda¯nta
Introduction
The concept of ignorance, known as
avidya¯ 
, is central to the position of AdvaitaVeda¯nta. S´a
_
nkara gives an exposition about the nature of 
avidya¯ 
in his introduction
S. K. A. Murthi (
&
)School of Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies,Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore560012, Indiae-mail: arun@nias.iisc.ernet.in; arun_jamadagni@yahoo.co.in
 123
J Indian PhilosDOI 10.1007/s10781-008-9053-9
The
u¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
Controversy Among Advaita Veda¯ntins:was S´a
_
nkara Himself Responsible?
S. K. Arun Murthi
Ó
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008
 
to the
Brahmasu¯ tras
—the introductory section of his
Brahmasu¯ trabha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
istraditionally known as
Adhya¯  sa-bha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
.
1
The
bha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
(commentary) of S´a
_
nkarawas further commented upon by the Advaita scholars with the intention of strengthening the viewpoints of Advaita, particularly on the doctrine of 
avidya¯ 
.These post-S´a
_
nkara commentators were known as
vya¯ khya¯ nka¯ ras
. Swami Satch-idanandendra Saraswati (hereafter SS) in the 1930s and forties introduced certainideas challenging the then prevailing tradition, which turned into a controversy,leading to a debate among Advaita Veda¯ntins regarding the nature of the concept of 
avidya¯ 
.
2
Michael Comans referring to the importance of this debate remarks, ‘‘Infact, if there has been a debate internal to the s´a¯
_
nkara tradition of Advaita overthe last 50 years, it is the dispute between the protagonists of the views of Sacchida¯nandendra and those who would defend the standard position’(2000;p. 249). This dispute was regarding the idea of ‘‘root ignorance’’ (
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
) as asubstantive (
bha¯ varu¯  pa
), indescribable (
anirvacanı¯  ya
) matter enveloping Brahmanand being an obstruction for the realization of Brahman. Martha Doherty has given alucid exposition of this
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
debate where she emphasizes the significance of 
avidya¯ 
to the Advaita position.Theconceptof 
avidya¯ 
iscrucialtotheAdvaitaposition,forwithoutit,thereisnonon-duality (
advaita
). The perceived duality is sublated as a reality by theknowledgeofanunderlyingnon-dualreality.Understandingthedualityasrealisanerror,whichisafunctionofignorance(
avidya¯ 
)ofthenon-dualreality(2005;p. 210).Further, reviewing the post-S´a
_
nkara commentatorsinterpretation of 
avidya¯ 
, sheshows that they attributed a causal role to
avidya¯ 
, which functions as a materialcause in concealing the true nature of Brahman. This is referred to as the ‘‘rootignorance’’ (
mu¯la¯vidya¯ 
) ‘‘in keeping with its causal status’’ (ibid, pp. 213–214).The concept of 
avidya¯ 
is also equated with
ma¯  ya¯ 
. It is considered to have a power(
 s
akti
). It was SS’s contention that such an idea of 
avidya¯ 
was alien to the originalS´a
_
nkara commentaries and was foisted on S´a
_
nkara by the later
vya¯ khya¯ nka¯ ras
.According to him there was not even an implication of 
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
in the originalcommentaries of S´a
_
nkara. He holds the post-S´a
_
nkara commentators, beginningwith the author of 
Pan˜capa¯ dika¯ 
(supposed to be written by Padmapa¯da) and thesub-commentator of this work Praka¯s´a¯tman (who wrote the sub-commentary
Vivara
n
:
a
) and his protagonists, known as
vivara
n
:
aka¯ ras,
responsible for thismisconstrual of S´a
_
nkara.
1
Tradition considers
Brahmasu¯ tra
to be one of the triple canonical texts of Veda¯nta philosophy apartfrom the Upanis
:
ads and the
Bhagavadgı¯ ta¯ 
. S´a
_
nkara has written commentaries on all these texts. Howeverit should be noted that he never calls the
su¯ tras
of Ba¯da¯ra¯yana constituting the text as
Brahmasu¯ tra
. Hecalls them as
a¯ ¯ raka Mı¯ ma¯ 
m
:
sa
or
Veda¯ nta Mı¯ ma¯ 
m
:
sa.
2
He published in 1929 a Sanskrit text
u¯ la¯ vidya¯ nira¯  sa
h
:
in which he opposed this idea of 
mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
foisted on the S´a
_
nkara’s texts by later commentators. Subsequently he published another book titled
a
_
n
kara Siddha¯ nta
in Kannada in 1940. In the preface to the latter work he writes that he has presentedthere the most important points of the Sanskrit treatise
Mu¯ la¯ vidya¯ nira¯  sa
h
:
. D.B. Gangolli has rendered afree English translation of 
a
_
n
kara Siddha¯ nta
, which was published in 1996 by Adhyatma PrakashaKaryalaya. It is this translation that has been consulted for the present paper. Page number references tothis work of SS are to this translated work and are indicated as (1940, Tr. Gangolli).S. K. A. Murthi
 123
 
Such a characterization of 
avidya¯ 
that is not to be found in S´a
_
nkara
bha¯ 
 s
:
 yas
, SScontends, is due to the total neglect by S´a
_
nkara scholars of a certain method whichS´a
_
nkara adopted in his exegesis. This is the method of 
adhya¯ ropa apava¯ da nya¯  ya
(method of deliberate superimposition and subsequent rescission/abrogation). In his
magnum opus Veda¯ nta-prakriya¯ -pratyabhijn˜a¯ 
, where he describes the nature of this method in detail, he writes,Brahman or the absolute Reality ever remains the same, unaffected by thesuperimposition of avidya¯ or its removal. It is for this reason that the s´rutiutilizes different devices suited to remove particular impositions and thisaccounts not only for the special instances of the ‘Adhya¯ropa-apava¯da’method
(1964; pp. 54–55)
 Avidya¯ 
and
ma¯  ya¯ 
are the special instance or application of the method as he sees it(1971; pp. 41–48). Referring to these terms he says,These terms are used in Vedanta for the particular kind of wrong knowledgeand the objective phenomena respectively, only as a device to introduce thereader (by means of Adhya¯ro¯pa¯pva¯da) to the transcendental entity or theWitnessing principle called Atman, and not for formulating theories whichthe system undertakes to defend (ibid, p. 45).SS lays great emphasis on this method. Understanding this method, for him,constitutes the cornerstone of the teaching and unfoldment of Veda¯ntic vision.Commenting on how SS was influenced in this regard, Doherty writes, ‘‘The pre-occupation with methodology and the narrow insistence on one defining methodwas a significant part of the legacy that Satchidanandendra inherited from theseauthors’’ (2005; p. 231). What is this method of exegesis that is special to S´a
_
nkaraVeda¯nta and why is this method adopted? The very nature and topic to be dealt withby Veda¯nta necessitates, so it is argued, the adoption of such a method.SS shows that S´a
_
nkara has made explicit reference to such a method in his
Bhagavadgı¯ ta¯ bha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
as follows:This in accordance with the knowers of the traditional method who say: thatwhich is devoid of specific features is to be explained by the method of deliberate superimposition and rescission.
3
The peculiarity of this method consists in adopting a two-standpoint approach for theexposition of Brahman. The two standpoints are the empirical or the transactionalstandpoint (
loka d
:
s
:
:
i
or
vyavaha¯ ra d
:
s
:
:
i
) and the transcendental or the ‘‘really real’standpoint (
 parama¯ rtha d
:
s
:
:
i
or
 s
a¯  stra d
:
s
:
:
i
). The notion of two standpoints is verycentraltothismethod.Inhisexposition,S´a
_
nkaraconvenientlyshiftsfromonepositionto the other in the same occasion and it sometimes becomes very difficult to make out
3
In the
Bhagavadgı¯ ta¯ bha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
passage on sloka XIII.13, S´a
_
nkara says:
tatha¯ hi sa
m
:
prada¯  yavida¯ 
m
:
vacana
m
:
-‘
adhya¯ ropa¯  pava¯ da¯ bhya¯ 
m
:
ni
 s
:
 prapan˜ca prapan˜cyate
(Panoli 1990; p. 169). I have onecomment to make here.
Adhya¯ ropa apava¯ da i
s a methodological principle.
Brahmasu¯ tras
known as the
nya¯  ya prastha¯ na
is the text which expounds the principles of Veda¯ntic exegesis and methods. So it wouldhave been more appropriate for S´a
_
nkara to make a reference to such a method in this text. It is surprisingthat S´a
_
nkara has not made any mention to such a method in his
Brahmasu¯ trabha¯ 
 s
:
 ya
.The
u¯ la¯ vidya¯ 
Controversy
 123

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