Shankara: 4 things you need to do in order to attain spiritual liberation (the 4 Qualifications according to Advaita Vedanta)

There are many ways to liberation, and all true paths join together in the end. In the Advaita Vedanta framework, 4 attributes or qualities are required to be developed before one can sufficiently progress on the path of Jnana or Enquiry.

In Vivekachudamani

In Shankara’s Vivekachudamani he outlines four practices or qualifications (sadhana catustaya)  that are required in order for liberation to successfully occur. First he lists the qualifications, and then he explains each one in turn.

I’ve noticed there are a small but growing number teachers of Vedanta who claim to be traditional teachers but they change the definitions of the qualifications and so alter the meaning of the teachings to suit different ends. These teachers tend to downplay the need for prolongued meditation on the Self, whereas the actual Vedanta texts and true traditional teachers of Vedanta tend to emphasise this.

So, as always, it pays to read the source texts for yourself and learn how the teachings were originally defined if you want to understand the original intentions of the Vedanta teachings. As usual, my comments are in red:

Shankara states there are 4 things that are required to attain liberation. More than that, he states that without these 4 things, liberation will not be attained. So let us learn about these 4 qualifications and how they are defined:

18. Regarding this, sages have spoken of four means of attainment, which alone being present, the devotion to Brahman succeeds, and in the absence of which, it fails.

19. First is enumerated discrimination between the Real and the unreal; next comes aversion to the enjoyment of fruits (of one’s actions) here and hereafter; (next is) the group of six attributes, viz. calmness and the rest; and (last) is clearly the yearning for Liberation.

Traditionally the 4 Qualifications are:
(1) Viveka or discrimination
(2) Vairagya or dispassion
(3) Samadi-satka-sampatti or the six disciplines consisting of Shama, Dama, Uparati, Titiksha, Shraddha and Samadhana in which the mind is progressively withdrawn from the sense objects and focused onto the pure sense of being (‘Sat’ or ‘Pure Brahman’)
(4) Mumuksutva or the yearning for liberation.

Shankara also adds a further qualification – the most important in his view – Bhakti, or devotion, which he defines in verse 31 as seeking or turning away from what is unreal (defined in the next verse) and turning towards one’s True Nature.

20. A firm conviction of the mind to the effect that Brahman is real and the universe unreal, is designated as discrimination (Viveka) between the Real and the unreal.

This is a clear definition of viveka that forms the foundation for the rest of the qualifications. Next Shankara defines vairagya in a very absolute way, which is essentially renunciation of all worldly objects ranging from the everyday to desires to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Brahma (the creator-deity who resides in heaven).

21. Vairagya or renunciation is the desire to give up all transitory enjoyments (ranging) from those of an (animate) body to those of Brahmahood (having already known their defects) from observation, instruction and so forth.

The notion is that because all such worldly or heavenly objects are transient, they will eventually go and therefore not lead to the eternal ever-existing peace of Brahman or Moksha.

In another text called Aparokshanunhuti, Shankara describes Vairagya as follows in verse 4: ‘The indifference with which one treats the excreta of a crow – such an indifference to all objects of enjoyment from the realm of Brahma to this world (in view of their perishable nature), is verily called pure Vairagya.’

Verses 22-25 will outline the 6 disciplines of Shama, Dama, Uparati, Titiksha, Shraddha and Samadhana. We can see that the gist of the 6 disciplines is to turn away from objects and the world and turn towards the Self:

22. The resting of the mind steadfastly on its Goal (viz. Brahman) after having detached itself from manifold sense-objects by continually observing their defects, is called Shama or calmness.

In Aparokshanunhuti Shankara  in verse 6 writes: ‘Abandonment of desires at all times is called Shama‘.

23. Turning both kinds of sense-organs away from sense-objects and placing them in their respective centres, is called Dama or self-control. The best Uparati or self- withdrawal consists in the mind-function ceasing to be affected by external objects.

24. The bearing of all afflictions without caring to redress them, being free (at the same time) from anxiety or lament on their score, is called Titiksha or forbearance.

25. Acceptance by firm judgement as true of what the Scriptures and the Guru instruct, is called by sages Shraddha or faith, by means of which the Reality is perceived.

26. Not the mere indulgence of thought (in curiosity) but the constant concentration of the intellect (or the affirming faculty) on the ever-pure Brahman, is what is called Samadhana or self-settledness.

Shama is an initial detachment from sense objects after contemplating how impermanent objects cannot give rise to (permanent) liberation. Dama is about withdrawing the sense organs from sense-objects and also reducing one’s activities in the world (‘both kinds’ refer to the sense organs and organs of action). Uparati is when the mind is no longer affected by objects at all.

We can see that Shama, Dama and Uparati represent a step-wise sequence in practicing different levels of vairagya (dispassion) which culminates in Samadhana, which is defined as constant concentration on Brahman devoid of objects as opposed to mere curiosity towards Brahman. We know that the Brahman spoken of is devoid of objects due to the above definitions of Shama, Dama and Uparati. This is further made clear by the verse quotes in Aporokshanubhuti below in which it is stated that the mind should be made to focus on ‘Sat’ (existence).

Titiksha and Shraddha are aids to this sequential process of introversion, which we could call Bhakti or svasvarupanusandhanam (see verse 31 below).

27. Mumukshutva or yearning for Freedom is the desire to free oneself, by realising one’s true nature, from all bondages from that of egoism to that of the body – bondages superimposed by Ignorance.

Shankara now talks of 3 grades of mumukshutva: low, medium and high. If the desire for liberation is low-to-medium, one is to cultivate vairagya and the 6 disciplines. Then the desire for liberation will increase:

28. Even though torpid or mediocre, this yearning for Freedom, through the grace of the Guru, may bear fruit (being developed) by means of Vairagya (renunciation), Shama (calmness), and so on.

If the desire for liberation is high, then the goal will be attained:

29. In his case, verily, whose renunciation and yearning for Freedom are intense, calmness and the other practices have (really) their meaning and bear fruit.

If the desire for liberation is low, then all this is mere superficiality and liberation will (likely) not result:

30. Where (however) this renunciation and yearning for Freedom are torpid, there calmness and the other practices are as mere appearances, like water in a desert.

Lastly Shankara extolls the magnificence of Bhakti, and defines it as ‘svasvarupanusandhanam’, which can be translated as striving to seek one’s nature or constantly turning towards one’s nature.

31. Among things conducive to Liberation, devotion (Bhakti) holds the supreme place. The seeking after one’s real nature is designated as devotion.

Interestingly Sri Ramana Maharshi was asked about the nature of svasvarupanusandhanam in Talks 642, and he stated that it referred to atma vichara or Self-enquiry itself. In Aparokshanunhuti verse 11 Shankara writes: ‘Knowledge is not brought about by any other means than Vichara [ie. enquiry], just as an object is nowhere perceived (seen) without the help of light.


In Aparokshanunhuti

In his text Aparokshanunhuti, Shankara explains the same 4 qualifications (sadhana catustaya) in a more punchy way in verses 4-11:

4. The indifference with which one treats the excreta of a crow – such an indifference to all objects of enjoyment from the realm of Brahma to this world (in view of their  perishable nature), is verily called pure Vairagya.

5. Atman (the seer) in itself is alone permanent, the seen is opposed to it (ie., transient) – such a settled conviction is truly known as discrimination.

6. Abandonment of desires at all times is called Shama and restraint of the external functions of the organs is called Dama.

7. Turning away completely from all sense-objects is the height of Uparati, and patient endurance of all sorrow or pain is known as Titiksha which is conducive to happiness.

8. Implicit faith in the words of the Vedas and the teachers (who interpret them) is known as Shraddha, and concentration of the mind on the only object Sat (i.e. Brahman) is regarded as Samadhana.

9. When and how shall I, O Lord, be free from the bonds of this world (i.e., births and deaths) – such a burning desire is called Mumukshutva.

10. Only that person who is in possession of the said qualifications (as means to Knowledge) should constantly reflect with a view to attaining Knowledge, desiring his own good.

11. Knowledge is not brought about by any other means than Vichara, just as an object is nowhere perceived (seen) without the help of light.

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