Is scriptural study a means to liberation or self-realisation? | Upanishads | Shankara | Advaita Vedanta| Shruti | Pramana | Scripture

Hopefully by the end of this post you will see why this is an ironic link 😉 : Recommended Reading: Books for Enlightenment, Liberation and Self-Realisation

Some say that studying the scriptures is a means to liberation. However, what do the scriptures themselves say? According to Advaita Vedanta, the highest authority are the teachings of the Upanishads.

The Self is not known through study of the scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for the Self is the Self known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal its True Nature.

Katha Upanishad, verse 1.2.23

Let us look and see what Shankara’s commentary on the above verse says:

The Self (Atman) is not to be attained or known through the study of many scriptures, not through the intellect or through grasping the meaning of texts, nor by any amount of mere learning. How is it then to be known? It is explained that that Self that is desired and longed for by the seeker, by that Self which is the seeker himself, that Self can be known. The meaning is that for one who longs for only the Self, being free from desire [for objects or objective phenomena], the Self reveals its True Nature.

The next verse in the Katha Upanishad reads as follows:

By learning, one cannot know the Self, if he desist not from evil conduct, if he control not his senses, if he quiet not his mind, and practice not meditation.

Katha Upanishad, verse 1.2.24

Similarly, Shankara’s commentary on the above verse again echoes the meaning of the verse with a few additions:

One who has not turned away from evil conduct, ie. from sinful acts prohibited and not permitted by the scriptures, who is not peaceful of mind, ie. who has not turned away from the activity of the senses, whose mind is not quiet and still, ie. whose mind is scattered; whose mind is not at rest, ie. whose mind, though calm and concentrated, is engaged in looking forward to the fruits of this concentration, cannot attain the Self that is spoken of. Only through knowledge of Brahman, meaning he alone who has turned away from bad conduct, who is free from the activity of the senses, whose mind is collected, and whose mind is at rest, even in respect of the fruits of its being so collected, taught by a teacher, attains the Self above described through Knowledge. This is the idea.

We can see here how Shankara hints at what he means by Knowledge – he clearly does not mean knowledge in the intellect, but equates knowledge with turning away from objective phenomena and clinging to the Subject-Self. In his other commentaries Shankara explains this in more detail.

As a slight aside, we can see how Shankara advises that we are to turn our attention within, away from all gross and subtle objects, in order to realise the Self in his commentary on Katha Upanishad eg. in verse 2.1.1 – Shankara writes:

‘…The group of sense organs, beginning with the ear, should be turned away from all sense-objects. Such a one, who is purified thus, sees the indwelling self. For it is not possible for the same person to be engaged in the thought of sense-objects and to have the vision of the Self as well.

Going back to our original point about scriptural study, it is worth noting the the first of the verses quoted above is the also repeated in another Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad:

The Self is not known through study of the scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for the Self is the Self known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal its True Nature.

Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.3

Shankara’s commentary on this verse is instructive and unequivocal that the purpose of this verse is to refute the notion that scripture is a primary means of self-knowledge. Here is Shankara’s commentary on Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.3:

If thus the realisation of the Self (Atman) is the greatest gain of all, it may be thought that a means such as scriptural study should be largely employed for its attainment. This verse is intended to dispel that notion. The Self which has been explained and whose realisation is the highest object of human desire cannot be attained by means of much study of the Vedas and the scriptures (Sastras). Similarly not by the intellect, ie. not by a retentive memory of the purport of writings; nor by much learning, ie. by much hearing. By what then could the Atman be attained is explained. The Supreme Self (Paramatman) whom this knower wishes to attain, by that longing for that alone can that Brahman be attained; not by any other means, because his nature is always attained. What is the nature of this knower’s attainment of the Atman is explained. As pot’s form is revealed where there is light, so the Atman, concealed by ignorance, reveals its true nature when there is knowledge. The jist of this verse is that is the sole means for realising the Self is the longing for realisation of the Self (Atman) such that all other desires [for objective or worldly phenomena] are renounced.

Again, Shankara hints that the nature of Knowledge or Jnana is revealed when we turn towards the Self in such a way that we lose interest in all other phenomena.

We can see a similar sentiment expressed by Sri Ramakrishna in that the yearning for Truth or God is the key:

Does this mean scriptures are useless?

No, far from it. Scriptures, such as the Upanishads, are precious gems that show us and point out to us the way to Liberation. The point is that study alone is fruitless. The scriptural advice and injuctions are to be put into practice. That is the Key.

Sri Ramana Maharshi was always clear on this point too, namely that scriptural study is only useful to point us towards how to turn within and abide as the Self,, which leads to liberation. Let us see what he says in the masterpiece text Guru Vachaka Kovai, the most authoritative text on Sri Ramana’s verbal teachings:

Those who do not dive into the Heart
And there confront the Self in the five sheaths hid

Are only students answering out of books
Clever questions raised by books,
And not true seekers of the Self.

Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 391

Holding in their hands the mirror,
The scripture which declares ‘The Self
Alone is to be known’, many
Alas, study with care the text
And commentaries;
only few
Seek the Self and gain true life.

Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 1157

In the above verse, Sri Ramana likens the scriptures to a mirror, implying their value and importance in recognising one’s true nature. We are not saying the scriptures are worthless – far from it! The scriptures contain valuable information to direct us on our quest for liberation. It is just that we need to move beyond them and turn within and abide as the self.

Far different from the scholar learned
In books of wisdom is the Seer.

Those who seek freedom from the bondage
Of ignorance had better leave
Scholars alone and enter the presence
Of Seers
established in the Self

Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 1158

The innocent girl-bride thinking that
Betrothal is full conjugal union
Is filled with joy. Even so the learned
Who have yet to turn within and taste true bliss
Claim that the verbal wisdom which they prattle
Is advaita jnana
[non-dual knowledge].

Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 599

Those who from books have learnt about
The truth supreme
esteem themselves
Supreme in wisdom, and fail to seek
The Knower
and taste the bliss of Self,
But test and measure the silent sage.
What folly this!

Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 600

Lastly, here is a direct quote from Chapter 1 of beautifully sublime Sri Ramana Gita:

Question: Is study of the scriptures enough by itself to liberate those desirous of knowledge, or is spiritual practice according to the Master’s injunctions also necessary?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: The seeker of knowledge does not achieve his end merely by a study of the scriptures. Without meditation (upasana) there cannot be attainment for him; this is definite. Experiencing the natural state, during spiritual practice, is called upasana, and when that state becomes firm and permanent, that itself is called knowledge (jnana). When discarding sense-objects, one abides in one’s own true nature as a flame of jnana, this state of being is termed the natural state (sahaja sthiti). In the firm, natural state, through that Supreme Silence, free from all vasanas, the jnani knows himself as such without any doubt.

In Brief: how to attain Liberation

Do we need to turn away from the world of objects to realise the Self? Upanishads & Shankara’s commentary

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