Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method (Mandukya Upanishad Karika)

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Gaudapada is a giant in the history of Advaita, and he is often known as the great-grandfather of Advaita Vedanta. Here in this post I want to focus on the practical aspects of the principle text of Gaudapada, the Mandukya Karika, aimed at the seeker of liberation. What is Gaudapada urging the seeker of liberation to actually do? There are many other aspects of the karika too, such as the metaphysical and philosophical elucidations, but maybe I will save discussion of these for a future post.

Gaudapada (c. 6th century CE) was the great-guru of Shankara (788-820 CE), ie. he was Shankara’s guru’s guru. And for those of you who don’t know, Shankara is the person who made the word non-duality (Sanskrit: Advaita) famous. It was he who brought together various texts and propped them up with logic and scriptural arguments and essentially systematised and founded what is today known as Advaita Vedanta.

While we know very little about Gaudapada and his life, he is famous for writing a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad called the Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada’s Karika. Whilst Gaudapada was not a Buddhist, it is clear that he drew heavily on Buddhist teachings in the karika, often using near exact copies of some Buddhist phrases in his writings, and much of what he writes will be very familiar to those who have studied Mahayana Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.

In my view much of the methodology for spiritual practice as well as the conceptual framework within which Gaudapda forms his views is much more similar to Buddhist thought that any Vedanta scripture that we know of that comes before Gaudapada. Conversely, we have many Buddhist scriptures that in essence give the same practical method for enlightenment as Gaudapada, the only substantive difference with Gaudapada being their philosophical way of interpreting and writing about the nature of reality. Now whilst I have been studying both Vedanta and Buddhism for over twenty years, I still do not consider myself to be an expert on the scriptures, so I welcome any corrections or alternative views you want to put my way.

As an interesting aside, the only copies of the Mandukya Upanishad we have are those which are combined with Gaudapada’s commentary. As no earlier versions without the commentary have been found, this has led some to speculate that perhaps Gaudapada himself wrote the Mandukya Upanishad. Textually and stylistically this seems unlikely, but, like with many upanishadic texts, their precise origins and authorship remains shrouded in darkness.


I thought I’d start with verse 90 of Chapter 4 of Gaudapada’s Karika, as it gives an overview of his approach:

IV 90. One should be conversant, at the very outset, with four things. These are as follows: the things to be avoided, the goal to be realized, the disciplines to be cultivated and the tendencies to be rendered ineffective. Of these four, all except the goal to be realized i.e. the Supreme Reality exist only as products of the imagination.

Gaudapada lists four things we should know from the outset as a spiritual seeker: what we are looking for, what we should do, what we should not do and what habitual tendencies we should get rid of. The supreme reality he is speaking of is none-other than Brahman. This is the goal to be realised, and all else, he states, is illusory. Essentially Gaudapada is saying there appears to be a spiritual path with a seeker and a goal and things to do and things to not do, but actually all there is is reality. The spiritual path is an illusion.

He makes this clearer in this famous oft quoted verse from Chapter 2 verse 32:

II 32. There is neither dissolution nor creation, none in bondage and none practicing disciplines. There is none seeking Liberation and none liberated. This is the absolute truth.

As we are stuck in illusion, what is the (illusory) way out? What is the (illusory) path we should follow? Gaudapada has already stated that the goal of the search is Brahman. Much of the Karika is devoted to philosophical explanation and reasoning about the nature of Brahman, illusion, cause and effect, duality vs. non-duality, etc, but in the following verses Gaudapada gives us a method we can use, and in doing so he also gives us an experiential definition of Brahman. The following verses are from Chapter 3:

III 40. Yogis who are ignorant of non-duality depend on the control of the mind for attaining fearlessness, the destruction of misery, Self-Knowledge and imperishable peace.

First Gaudapada makes it clear that for one who is not already self-realised or liberated  (‘ignorant of non-duality’), control of mind is the method. What are the fruits of this method? They are fearlessness, the end of suffering, knowledge of the supreme reality and unending peace. That control of mind is required was already stated in verse III.35 in which he writes ‘The controlled mind is verily the fearless Brahman’ – he is essentially saying that egoic vasanas (habitual tendencies) need to be removed – a point which he will reiterate later in verse III.46 below.

III 41. The mind is to be brought under control by undepressed effort; it is like emptying the ocean, drop by drop, with the help of a blade of kusa grass.

Gaudapada then says that this (illusory) path takes much effort, ie. a spiritual practice is required, and he likens this to using a blade of grass to empty the ocean drop by drop. Whilst Brahman is already fully here and now, an (apparent) path is required to remove (apparent) ignorance. As I said before, this post will not dwell too much on the philosophical aspects, but focus on practical steps for the (apparent) seeker. So how do we proceed on this path?

III 42. The mind distracted by desires and enjoyments should be brought under control by proper means; so also the mind enjoying pleasure in inactivity (laya). For the state of inactivity is as harmful as the state of desires.

Here Gaudapada states we should not be distracted by desire for sensual pleasures and warns us that dwelling in the pleasure of inactivity (laya) is also not the way, for this is actually just another sensual pleasure that fuels the egoic process further.

Already here, for those of you versed in a variety of Buddhist thought, you will see the familiarity in the methodology, in which dwelling on any sense object is pointed out as nothing other than egoic desire. But why should be turn away from these desires? Isn’t desire for pleasure natural and human?

III 43. Turn back the mind from the enjoyment of desires, remembering that they beget only misery. Do not see the created objects, remembering that all this is the unborn Atman.

We see another classic Buddhist teaching here. It is pointed out that seeking pleasure, or ‘enjoyment of desires’, just leads to further suffering. This is akin to the Buddha’s teachings on Dukkha (Pali for suffering). In fact the Sanskrit word here used is ‘Dukkham’, almost paying homage to the Buddha’s teachings. All pleasures come and go, and though they may please us for a short time, eventually they leave us. And when they do, they leave us wanting more, feeling incomplete, addicted to our desire for more and more and more. And so the seeking-suffering, the wheel of samsara, continues

The remedy suggested here is to see all this as the ‘unborn Atman’, and not to see the objects themselves at all.

What problems may we encounter on this path, and how do we remedy them?

III 44. If the mind becomes inactive, arouse it from laya; if distracted, make it tranquil. Understand the nature of the mind when it contains the seed of attachment. When the mind has attained sameness, do not disturb it again.

This verse mimics the Buddhist scriptures we see detailing various Buddhist meditation methods, in which remedies for both inactivity and distraction are advised so that the meditator can find that still point of equanimity. Again, the idea is of neither slipping into the dull state of laya with all its bliss and laziness (tamas), nor being hyper-agitated and enamoured with thoughts and the world (rajas), and this attaining peace (sattva).

Are there any further stumbling blocks on this path?

III 45. The yogi must not taste the happiness arising from samadhi; he should detach himself from it by the exercise of discrimination. If his mind, after attaining steadiness, again seeks external objects, he should make it one with Atman through great effort.

The instructions Gaudapa give us are extremely concise, and each of these terse verses could be unpacked in much greater detail. Here the seeker is warned not to become attached to happiness, which is nothing other than another subtle object. Seeking objects in order to gain fulfillment is a sure way of perpetuating the ego-illusion together with its addiction to feeling good.

The second sentence also highlights another important aspect of the teaching, namely that even after steadiness of mind is attained, there can be a lapse back in to delusion/ignorance, where the ego and it’s object-centred desires raise their head. The remedy for this is continued practice. Avoid this step at your peril.

What about when the mind no longer falls back into egoic desire or laya?

III 46. When the mind does not lapse into inactivity and is not distracted by desires, that is to say, when it remains unshakable and does not give rise to appearances, it verily becomes Brahman.

Here we are given a pragmatic definition of self-realisation or Brahman – ie. when ignorance no longer remains, when the mind no longer deviates and follows egoic desires, where the grasping mind has essentially died.

To put this into vedanta-speak, Gaudapada is equating realisation of Brahman with removal of the egoic vasanas, something reiterated by Shankara when he famously wrote vasana kshaya moksham, which means ‘destruction of the vasanas is Moksha (liberation)’.

So I will end this post here. The actual instructions are few, and for those with faith they can easily be followed. Be patient – remember – slow and steady wins the race. Re-read the above verses a few times so they sink in, and best wishes.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

See also:
The ‘Ultimate Means’ to Liberation
False Enlightenment

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6 thoughts on “Advaita Vedanta: Gaudapada’s Method (Mandukya Upanishad Karika)

  1. Dear Sir,

    I have a question. If Advait Vedanta is so powerful then why only centuries after the death of Shankara, India had to face a series of plunder for more than 1000 years?

    Regards, Rajat

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  2. Comment on Advaita Vedanta – Gaudapada´s Method – Mandukya Upanishad Karika

    Dear Tom , such a great post with insightful written illustrations by yourself. Reading your teachings have the effect of bucking up at once from ignorance.
    I don´t mean to say that I am easily lost but at this point I need your pointers more than anything else.
    Love

    Liked by 1 person

  3. a good note indeed, but a bit biased note to repeatedly proclaim that it’s mimicking that Buddha. who’s mimicking whom is a small twist and turn of our tongue. there is no much evidence to stand on, both ways are susceptible, perhaps. thanks.

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    1. Hi sulochanosho. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure why you think it’s biased though. Most of the methodology Gaudapada gives was already present in the Mahayana Buddhist literature for several centuries prior to him writing this, but as far as I know you won’t find a similar methodology in Vedanta/Vedic literature that predates this. Let me know if you know otherwise, and I’m glad you liked the post. Best wishes to you

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