Objection: The assumption that thought is an actual thing and that thought has a source, arises only in the realm of imaginary separation. There is, by definition, no way to determining the imaginary source of an imaginary thing.
Tom: Whilst it is true that thought is ultimately an illusion, and trying to get rid of thought is also more of the same illusion, there is a logical flaw in this objection, as follows: thoughts may be imaginary, but that does not mean their source is imaginary. Fiction or imagination can have a real source. The teaching is to locate that Source (the Self) and abide there in Pure Being, which is devoid of thought, until the tendency to imagine duality (ie. thought) ceases.
Here are two quotes to illustrate the above points, one from Sri Shankara, and one from Sri Ramana:
‘The binding, and the getting rid of bondage, are both mirages. The belief that bondage of the Real, is, and the belief that it has ceased, are both mere things of thought‘
~Sri Shankara, Vivekachudamani verses 571 and 572
‘All doubts will cease only when the doubter and his source have been found. There is no use removing doubts. If we clear one doubt, another doubt will arise and there will be no end of doubts.‘
There are several views on this topic, but in this post we will see what the Advaita scriptures say and what Shankara has written on this in his commentaries.
In some texts that are attributed to Shankara, such as Vivekachudamani, the case is clearly presented – these texts clearly state that Samadhi is definitely required for Self-Realisation to occur. Whilst this is the most widely held view, and by far the dominant traditional view for at least the last one thousand years and more, and also the view of the four Shankara Mathas that have been entrusted with handing down Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta tradition to each generation, there are a minority who state that Vivekachudamani is not a genuine work of Shankara.
Therefore in this post we will look at what was written by Shankara in his commentaries, the authorship of which is not in doubt:
Please see this link hereto read the discussion of this topic.
Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji (SSS, 1880-1975), was a vedic scholar who devoted much of his life to studying the works of Shankara (c. 7th century BCE), the great reformer of Advaita Vedanta. SSS came to the conclusion that many of the texts that are ordinarily attributed to Shankara are not genuine works of Shankara, and that the truly genuine works of Shankara are essentially the commentaries he wrote on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutras and a non-commentarial text called Upadesa Sahasri. Whilst this view remains a controversial minority view, and personally I am not convined by the evidence brought forth, many are increasingly subscribing to it.
However, of those who do follow SSS’s teachings, I have noticed some have not actually read his teachings thoroughly, especially on what he says about Nididhyasana, or Vedantic Meditation.
So in this post we will look at how SSS defines Nididhyasana. I have read many of SSS’s books, and if we look at what SSS actually writes, we will see that the method he proposes is essentially the same as the method of Self-Enquiry as proposed by Sri Ramana Maharshi. Let us see:
The first thing to notice is that SSS states that Nididhyasana is the same as Dhyana Yoga as described in Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, and Mano-nigraha Yoga as described in Gaudapada’s Karika, and is also called Adhyatma Yoga:
Adhyatma Yoga by SSS p. 9:
‘This Adhyatma Yoga is called as ‘Nidhidhyasana’ and in the sixth chapter of the Gita this Nidhidhyasana is described as ‘Dhyana Yoga’. The complete sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita reveals the process of this Dhyana Yoga with its accessories. In this very Bhagavad Gita in the following contexts also this Dhyana Yoga or Adhyatma Yoga is prescribed: 13-24, 18-52. The same Adhyatma Yoga is also called as ‘Manoni-graha Yoga’ by Gaudapada in his Mandukya Karikas from 3.41 to 3.48. So in all these places the practice of Adhyatma Yoga, its accessories, the obstacles during the practice and the removal of the obstacles are described.’
The second thing to notice is that according to SSS this Nididhyasana (or Adhyatma Yoga) is a means to Self-Realisation.
The Theory of Vedanta by SSS, p. 153:
‘In addition to Karma and Upasana, there is a kind of concentrated contemplation called the Adhyatma-Yoga which leads to immediate intuition [of Brahman, ie. Self Realisation].’
This is further clarified in the introduction to the text Adhyatma Yoga. In this context the term ‘Vastu Tantra’ means Nididhysana is a means to Self-Realisation or Truth-Realisation. (‘Vastu Tantra’ means ‘a path to the truth’, which is independent of the person who is looking, so to speak, much like science – eg. the same independent scientific truth such as the speed of light or the gravitational constant can be discovered by various people from different places – this truth is independent of the person looking. Vastu Tantra means that this is the method that leads to the supreme truth, ie. liberation or Knowlege of Brahman/Atman. This is opposed to ‘Kartru Tantra’, also known as ‘Purusha Tantra’, which refers to ‘the path of an individual’ – eg. lifting weights to build up your muscles or meditating to gain specific special powers – it is a path that leads to specific results for an individual – eg. bigger muscles or specific powers – but it does not lead to discovery of an ‘objective’ non-personal universal truth). The following is from the introduction to the text Adhyatma yoga:
‘The subject dealt with here viz. Adhyatma Yoga, also known as Dhyana Yoga, Mano-nigraha Yoga, Samadhi Yoga and Nidhidhyasana, is treated these days as a Kartru Tantra Sadana. But in the Shankara Bhashya throughout, this Adhyatma Yogi or Dhyana Yoga is treated as a Vastu Tantra Sadhana.’
The third thing to notice is that the technique of Nididhyasana is to turn one’s attention away from objective phenomena and turn towards the Self until one ‘intuits’ the Self directly.
Here is a quote from The Method of Vedanta by SSS, p. 147, that summarises much of the above and also describes in brief the method of nididhyasana. Upasana is defined here as meditation upon objects, and nididhyasana is to turn away from objects (note that in some scriptures the word ‘upasana’ is used synonymously with ‘nididhyasana’ but here SSS is using the words in this particular way):
‘The aim of the one practising sustained meditation (nididhyasana) is different [to Upasana, defined here as meditation on forms/objects]. He tries to attain direct vision of reality (here in this very world) by turning his mind away from all else [ie. all objects].And there is the difference — as against upasana — that after the rise of knowledge nothing further remains to be done. It is this sustained meditation that is referred to at Kathha Upanishad I.ii.12 by the name ‘Adhyatma Yoga’. In the Gita it is sometimes called ’Dhyana Yoga’ (e.g. XVI11.52). In the Mandukya Karikas it is called ’restraint of the mind’ (G.K.III.41, etc.). Its nature is described there in that latter work. Everywhere its result is described in the same way as right metaphysical knowledge, and from this comes immediate liberation (sadyo-mukti).’
SSS then quotes from the Katha Upanishad and Shankara’s commentary on it to make is point clear:
‘The wise man comes to know God through mastering Adhyatma Yoga, and gives up joy and sorrow. (Kathha I.ii.12)
[Tom: ie. through Adhyatma Yoga the Self is realised; SSS then goes on to quote Shankara’s commentary:]
Sankara’s Commentary: Mastering Adhyatma Yoga: Adhyatma Yoga means withdrawing the mind from objects and concentrating it on the Self. Having meditated on the deity, the Self, through attainment of Adhyatma Yoga, the wise man gives up joy and sorrow because there are no gradations of value in the Self.’
On p.149 of The Method of Vedanta by SSS, SSS quotes from Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita to explain in more detail the method of Nididhyasana, as follows:
‘That yoga should certainly be practised with resolute mind. Giving up without exception all desires that come from individual, will, restraining the sense-organs on every side through the mind, one should gradually withdraw from all activity, with will and intellect firmly controlled; keeping the mind fixed on the Self, one should not think of anything. Wherever the fickle mind wanders, one should bring it back and fix it on the Self alone, under firm control. Supreme joy comes to such a yogi, whose mind is at perfect peace, whose lusts have subsided, who is sinless and who has become the Absolute.’
I hope the above is useful and helpful to you
Here are some other articles that speak on this topic:
According to Advaita Vedanta, what is meant by Samadhi? And is this Samadhi necessary for Self-Realisation?
If you read the following carefully, you will see that Sri Gaudapada (in his Mandukya Karika) and Sri Shankara (in his commentary upon the Mandukya Karika) are both stating the following:
The Self is realisable through Samadhi
In Samadhi there are no thoughts present
In Samadhi there are no gross or subtle objects present
This Samadhi is not a state of mind, for the mind (and other objects) are not present in Samadhi
This Samadhi leads to Jnana (Knowledge)
Whilst this is clearly explained in texts such as Shankara’s Vivekachudamani (see herefor the series of verses in Vivekachudamani that emphasise the need for Samadhi) and many other Advaita texts, there are a minority who dispute the authorship of these texts saying it was not the original Shankara but a later Shankara that wrote these other texts. So here I will quote from Gaudapada’s Karika (Gaudapada’s commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad) and Shankara’s commentary on this.
Both Gaudapada and Shankara are considered authorities in Advaita Vedanta and in the case of these texts there is no dispute in the authorship – ie. everyone agrees that Gaudapada authored the Mandukya Karika and that Shankara’s commentary on this was actually authored by Shankara – so we can be clear this is the correct teaching that represents their views. Let us see:
1. The Self is realisable only through Samadhi
The Self (Atman) is beyond all expression by words beyond all acts of mind; It is absolutely peaceful, it is eternal effulgence free from activity and fear and it is attainable by Samadhi.
~ Gaudapada, Mandukya Upanishad Karika 3.37
Some people translate the last phrase differently, but when we look at Shankara’s commentary on the verse, we can see the meaning is made clear, ie. the above translation is the correct one – the Self is attainable by Samadhi. In fact Shankara goes further, he states the Self is only realised through Samadhi:
Shankara’s commentary from the above verse from Gaudapada 3.37 states: …The Self (Atman) is denoted by the word Samadhi as it can be realised only by the knowledge arising out of the deepest concentration (on its essence), Samadhi. Or the Self (Atman) is denoted by Samadhi because it is the object of concentration, the Jiva concentrates his mind on the Self (Atman)…
[Edit: since writing this article it has been pointed out to the me that the underlined word ‘only’ does not appear in the original Sanskrit, but this was an overzealous addition by the translator of this verse, Swami Nikhilananda, when he translated the commentary into English]
2. In Samadhi no thoughts are present
Now others will say that Samadhi doesn’t mean that all thoughts should cease, as that is yogic samadhi, and vedanta samadhi is something different in which thoughts and objects of perception can be present. However, what do Gaudapada and Shankara say? If we read carefully and slowly we will see that this question is also clarified:
In the next verse Gaudapada writes in verse 3.38 of his Mandukya Karika that all thoughts have stopped and that this leads to Jnana (Knowledge). Note that this verse is a continuation following on from the previous verse which has just stated the Self can be realised by Samadhi:
There can be no acceptance or rejection where all mentation stops. Then knowledge is established in the Self and is unborn, and it becomes homogenous
~Gaudapada, Mandukya Karika 3.38
We can see the emphasis is on cessation of all thoughts (‘all mentation stops’), implying this is what will happen in Samadhi. Then self-knowledge is established, the verse goes on to say, ie. once all mentation has stopped, then self-knowledge is established. Shanakra states this Self-Knowledge is unborn, meaning it was never created and is not subject to birth and death. This self-knowledge is also homogenous, meaning there are no differences in it whatsoever. This is another way of stating there are no objects perceived, for the presence of objects would make it heterogenous, not homogenous. Note that thoughts are also objects.
Again, some state this is not the correct interpretation of the verse, and that homogenous does not mean there are no objects present, but let us see what Shankara has to say in his commentary on the above verse:
Shankara’s commentary on this verse 3.38 is as follows:
…therefore there is no rejection or acceptance in It, where thought does not exist. That is to say, how can there be rejection or acceptance where no mentation is possible in the absence of the mind? As soon as there comes the realisation of the Truth that is the Self, then, in the absence of any object, knowledge (Jnanam) is established in the Self, like the heat of fire in fire. It is then birthless (ajati) and becomes homogenous.
Again, we can see that Shankara is clear that there are no thoughts, and therefore no mind (as mind is just the presence of thoughts, or the movement of thinking).
3. In Samadhi there are no gross or subtle objects present
Shankara also states clearly that Jnana (Self-Knowledge) arises in the absence of any objects being present in the above quote, the commentary on verse 3.38.
Later on we see this same theme being repeated, ie. that there are no objects or appearances present in this Samadhi which leads to Brahman-Realisation (ie. Liberation):
‘…when the mind becomes quiescent and does not give rise to appearances, it verily becomes Brahman’ ~ Gaudapada, Mandukya Upanishad Karika 3.46
Shankara clarifies this further in his commentary on Mandukya Karika 3.46:
‘When the mind brought under discipline by the above-mentioned methods, does not fall into the oblivion of deep sleep, nor is distracted by external objects, that is to say, when the mind becomes quiescent like the flame of a light kept in a windless place; or when the mind does not appear in the form of an object – when the mind is endowed with these characteristics, it verily becomes one with Brahman.’
~ Shankara in his commentary on Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika 3.46
We can see that Shankara is stating in Samadhi, which was earlier advocated as the means to liberation, is devoid of objective phenomena when he writes ‘the mind does not appear in the form of an object’ above. We can also see that he is stating there are no thoughts in Samadhi, when he writes ‘when the mind becomes quiescent’.
Anandagiri, a 13th century commentator on Shankara’s works, confirms this in his comments on Karika 3.46: ‘The external objects are nothing but the activities of the mind itself.’
So we can see that mind activity and external objects are one and the same, and that samadhi is devoid of both
4. This Samadhi is not a state of mind, for the mind (and other objects) are not present in Samadhi
So we can see that Samadhi is not simply a state of mind – Shankara states it is the absense of mind and thought and objects. How can samadhi be a state of mind if there is no mind present in Samadhi? Samadhi is beyond the mind. Samadhi is the Self.
States of mind come and go, and the mind, being an object, is a part of Maya. However Samadhi is to abide as Self.
This is the meaning of nididhyasana – to abide as Self, the pure Consciousness that we already are. It is explained in detail in traditional advaita texts like Vivekachudamani and Advaita Bodha Deepika, and Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teachings point us unwaveringly to this same teaching too.
5. This Samadhi leads to Jnana (Knowledge)
Well I have no further quotes for you in this section – you should hopefully already be able to see from the quotes given above that Jnana arises from Samadhi, and this Samadhi is devoid of thoughts and objects. However, in this section I will re-present the above quotes with the emphasis on Samadhi leading to Jnana. In order to do this I have abbreviated some of the quotes (as indicated by ‘…’), the unabbreviated versions being present above:
Eg. here Gaudapada states the Atman can be attained through Samadhi.
‘The Self (Atman)…is attainable by Samadhi.’ ~ Gaudapada, Mandukya Upanishad Karika 3.37
Shankara goes further and states that only Samadhi leads to Knolwedge in his commentary on the above verse:
‘…The Self (Atman)…can be realised only by the knowledge arising out of…Samadhi.’
Then Gaudapada also states that when all thought ceases Knowledge arises:
‘…where all mentation stops. Then knowledge is established in the Self…’ ~Gaudapada, Mandukya Karika 3.38
Shankara’s commentary on this above verse 3.38 unsurprisingly states the same:
…in the absence of any object, knowledge (Jnanam) is established in the Self…’
So hopefully we can now clearly see that, according to Gaudapada and Shankara:
The Self is realisable only through Samadhi
In Samadhi there are no thoughts present
In Samadhi there are no gross or subtle objects present
This Samadhi is not a state of mind that comes and goes, for the mind (and other objects) are not present in Samadhi
It is only this Samadhi that leads to Jnana (Knowledge)
I hope the above verses are of help for you. The above is just one of a series of articles I have written on this topic – please see below for some of the other posts that discuss this further.
Here we will see, using quotes from Gaudapada, Shankara, the Upanishads and Sri Ramana Maharshi that the same essential teaching is taught regarding the reality of the waking and dream states – namely that they are both equally unreal, that both waking and dream are dream!
Tom: Here is verse 1 from chapter 2 of Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika (Gaudapada’s four chapter commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad), my comments are in red:
2.1. Harih Aum. The wise declare the unreality of all entities seen in dreams, because they are located within the body and the space therein is confined.
Tom: Gaudapada is essentially stating something we already know, namely that we dream of many things, but all these things we dream of are not actually real. They are all projections of the mind, which is what Gaudapa means by ‘located within the body and the space therein is confined’
2.2. The dreamer, on account of the shortness of the time involved, cannot go out of the body and see the dream objects. Nor does he, when awakened, find himself in the places seen in the dream.
Tom: Again, Gaudapada is stating what we already know about dreams. Shankara in his commentary on this verse explains this means that if we dream of going to a far away land many hundreds of miles away that would take several months to travel to, there is not enough time in dream, which only lasts a few hours, to actually travel there. Similarly, when we wake from the dream, we do not find ourself in this dream location far away.
2.3. Scripture, on rational grounds, declares the non-existence of the chariots etc. perceived in dreams. Therefore the wise say that the unreality established by reason is proclaimed by scripture.
Tom: Gaudapada in verses 2.1 and 2.2 has shown that the many things perceived in dreams are not real on the basis of our own experience. Now he is stating the same based on scripture, referring to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.10, which states, referring to a dream about chariots:
‘There are no chariots, nor animals to be yoked to them, nor roads there, but he creates the chariots, animals and roads. There are no pleasures, joys, or delights there, but he creates the pleasures, joys and delights. There are no pools, tanks, or rivers there, but he creates the pools, tanks and rivers. For he is the agent’.
The idea from Gaudapada is that if we dream of a chariot, that chariot is not real, as confirmed by scripture. Note that the teaching that is given in the next two verses is essentially the same as the teaching given in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3(please see this link for more).
2.4. The different objects seen in the confined space of dreams are unreal on account of their being perceived. For the same reason, ie. on account of their being perceived, the objects seen in the waking state are also unreal. The same condition ie. the state of being perceived exists in both waking and dreaming. The only difference is the limitation of space associated with dream objects.
Tom: Gaudapada is now equating the dream and waking states, stating that just as dream objects are perceived but not real, the same is with the waking state objects – they are also perceived yet utterly unreal. Does this mean we are to consider the waking state as unreal as a dream? The answer is yes, let us see:
2.5. Thoughtful persons speak of the sameness of the waking and dream states on account of the similarity of the objects perceived in both states on the grounds already mentioned.
Tom: The translation used thus far is that of Swami Nikhilanananda of the Ramakrishna Order. Swami Gambhirananda, also of the Ramakrishna Order, translates the last line of verse 2.5 as ‘the wise say that the dream and the waking states are one’.
In his commentary on Gaudapada Karika verse 2.5 (above) Shankara states ‘…therefore discriminating people speak of the sameness of the states of waking and dream.’
We can see that Gaudapada and Shankara are both explicitly stating that the waking state is another form of the dream state, and whilst we often distinguish between waking and sleep, they are actually both dream states, and all that is perceived within waking and dream are equally unreal.
Again, note that this teaching is also given in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3
We see the same teaching given much more concisely in Shankara’s masterpiece, Vivekachudamani:
170. In dreams, when there is no actual contact with the external world, the mind alone creates the whole universe consisting of the experiencer etc. Similarly in the waking state also; there is no difference. Therefore all this (phenomenal universe) is the projection of the mind.
Tom: We can see that Shankara is saying that the mind projects both the dream state and the waking state. Note that this is essentially equating the mind with maya. Shankara goes on to reiterate this view in subsequent verses:
171. In dreamless sleep, when the mind is reduced to its causal state, there exists nothing (for the person asleep), as is evident from universal experience. Hence man’s relative existence is simply the creation of his mind, and has no objective reality.
177. The mind continually produces for the experiencer all sense-objects without exception, whether perceived as gross or fine, the differences of body, caste, order of life, and tribe, as well as the varieties of qualification, action, means and results.
Tom: Above we can see that Shankara has equated Mind with Maya. Now he will equate Mind with Ignorance. We can deduce that all three, Mind-Maya-Ignorance, are just three names for the same phenomenon:
180. Hence sages who have fathomed its secret have designated the mind as Avidya or ignorance, by which alone the universe is moved to and fro, like masses of clouds by the wind.
Sri Ramana Maharshi
Like Shankara and Gaudapada, Sri Ramana also equates ignorance and maya, and he further says the same phenomenon is also called ego, jiva, conceit, and impurity – ie. all these various words mean the same thing, and that this ignorance is essentially the ‘I am the body idea’ – see here, taken from the text Vichara Sangraham (Self-Enquiry) in the answer to question 3:
Sri Ramana Maharshi:…Therefore, the ‘I-consciousness’ which at first arises in respect of the body is referred to variously as self-conceit (tarbodham), egoity (ahankara), nescience (avidya), maya, impurity (mala), and individual soul (jiva).
In question 10 of the same text, Vichara Sangraham (Self Enquiry), Sri Ramana says the following:
Question: If the entire universe is of the form of mind, then does it not follow that the universe is an illusion? If that be the case, why is the creation of the universe mentioned in the Vedas?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: There is no doubt whatsoever that the universe is the merest illusion. The principal purport of the Vedas is to make known the true Brahman, after showing the apparent universe to be false. It is for this purpose that the Vedas admit thecreation of the world and not for any other reason…this world arose like a dream on account of one’s own thoughts induced by the defect of not knowing oneself as the Self…That the world is illusory, everyone can directly know in the state of Realisation which is in the form of experience of one’s bliss-nature.
In the text Nan Yar? (Who Am I?), Sri Ramana writes:
Sri Ramana Maharshi:…The world should be considered like a dream.
Question: Is there no difference between waking and dream?
Sri Ramana Maharshi: Waking is long and a dream short; other than this there is no difference. Just as waking happenings seem real while awake, so do those in a dream while dreaming.
So, what now? Now we must put the teachings into practice to realise the truth of them:
Some say that Shraddha, the Sankrit word for faith, does not refer to blind faith or mere belief, but to a ‘faith pending results’, similar to the ‘faith’ required for a science student to follow a scientific experiment in order to discover the truth it yields.
Whilst there is some truth in this, it is not the whole truth, and also note that the scriptures do not define faith in this way (see the quotes section below). It is true that faith, as spoken of in the Advaita scriptures, is not the end goal in itself, meaning one doesn’t simply believe in God or in a dogma or creed of some kind and leave it at that, which would be rather superficial and on the level of the intellect predominantly. Rather faith is a ferry to take us to the shore of liberation, and this liberation is the goal, and this goal of liberation or God must be ‘experienced’ or ‘realised’ or ‘known’ for oneself, for want of a better phrase.
However, the faith spoken of in the Vedanta scriptures is much deeper than what has been described above. It is not just a mere willingness to try something until you see the results, like a scientist, or even a simple trust that the teachings will show you the way, but something that throbs in our very core, a deep conviction, in our very heart, in our Being. It is a deep resonance, a magnetic pull, intertwined with an intuitive knowing.
This faith cannot be taught, but is something that at some point in our journey springs into our very Being and takes us Home to Liberation. Perhaps it comes to us having listened to and studied the Advaita (or similar) teachings for some time, or perhaps faith dawns after having experienced the various ups and downs of life, or perhaps it comes to us unasked for, as Divine a Gift from God, a Gift of His Grace.
This true faith is inextricably linked with Bhakti, or devotional love of the Divine, which culminates in love to be with Self as Self, otherwise known as Self-Enquiry or Dhyana (meditation).
For me this Faith arose through the Presence and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, and for that I am forever grateful. His Presence and His Teachings unfailingly guide Homeward those who have come under His Spell and Grace. He is the Lord, He is the very Self, he resides within your very Heart – turn inwards and dis-cover (ie. uncover and reveal) your identity with Him.
QUOTES FROM THE VEDANTA SCRIPTURES
Let us see what kind of person, according to Vedanta, attains Jnana, or ‘divine knowledge’, otherwise known as liberation:
Bhagavan Lord Krishna states in the Gita Chapter 4, verse 39: ‘Those whose faith is deep and who have practiced controlling their mind and senses attain divine knowledge.’
Shankara defines faith and states it is necessary for realisation in Vivekachudamani: ‘Acceptance by firm judgment 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‘
Shankara also writes in Aparokshanubhuti that Shraddha is required for liberation and defines Shraddha as follows: ‘Implicit faith in the words of the Vedas and the teachers (who interpret them) is known as Shraddha‘
It is said that the suffering can only end when the Self is realised, and that the Self can only be realised through Jnana, which means ‘knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ is tantamount to and synonymous with liberation itself. So, what is this Jnana? Often the word is not clearly defined in vedanta scriptures so the exact meaning of the word is lost. Many people think that jnana refers to knowledge in the intellect or mind, but this is an incorrect understanding.
For those of you who are familiar with the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, you will know that Sri Ramana makes the meaning clear for us: Jnana is just another word for the Self. The Self ‘knows’ itself by Its-Self. Jnana just means being the Self, devoid of objects or any arising phenomena.
However, what do the traditional scriptures say? Well, as usual, they same the same as Sri Ramana. Jnana just means Being Self, devoid of all arising phenomenal objects. In Gaudapada’s masterpiece, his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad also known as Mandukya Karika or Gaudapada Karika, the entirely of Vedanta is unfolded and explained. We also have Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’s writing to guide us further.
Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada
One other advantage about using Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada’ Karika is that whilst the same teachings are often given in shorter simpler texts written by Shankara (ie. the prakarana granthas or ‘instruction manuals’), some people (usually those who disagree with the teachings of these shorter texts!) debate whether or not Shankara actually wrote the shorter texts. Whilst most scholars still think that it is highly likley that Shankara did write these prakarana granthas, there is enough of a minority who disagree.
However this is not the case with Shankara’s commentary on Gaudapada Karika – there is almost universal agreement that this is clearly an authentic work of Shankara’s. In the quotes below I have used the translation from Swami Gambhirananda taken from the book ‘Eight Upanishads with the commentary of Sankaracarya’, which is one of the more literal translations available. This does make it slightly harder to read at times, but it means the meaning, once deciphered, is generally clearer.
Gaudapada’s Karika is composed of four chapters. In the first two chapters Gaudapada relentlessly drives home the point that all phenomenal arisings in the waking state are utterly illusory, just like in a dream all objects in the waking state are projected imaginings, and are a product of Maya. This includes all subtle objects such as knowledge in the intellect, which is said to be more Maya. ie. knowledge in the intellect and ignorance are both ignorance and illusion. In Shankara’s commentary he agrees with this and further supplements Gaudapada’s reasoning (see chapter 2 verses 1-19 and verses 31-36 of Gaudapada’s Karika and Shankara’s commentary for this).
In fact in verse 2.5 Gaudapada encourages the seeker to consider the waking and dream states to be a single dream state rather that two distinct states called waking and dream, with Shankara again agreeing in his commentary on this verse. This is why the Self is said to be beyond both knowledge and ignorance.
Knowledge vs experience
Note that some people contrast intellectual knowledge with experience, stating that intellectual knowledge is what is needed rather than experiences, which come and go. However, note that according to Gaudapada’s framework, intellectual knowledge is just a subtype or class of experience, as it too comes and goes and is subject to change, hence all intellectual knowledge ultimately is just maya or dream-like illusion. It should be obvious to us if we discern – what is ordinarily called knowledge, ie. knowledge in the mind or intellect, is actually just a form or type of experience!
So back to Jnana. How does Gaudapada define this? How does Shankara define this? We see a definition in Chapter 3 verse 33, as follows:
33. They say that the non-conceptual knowledge (Jnanam), which is birthless, is non-different from the knowable (Brahman). The knowledge that has Brahman for its content is birthless and everlasting. The Birthless is known by the Birthless.
Shankara starts his commentary on this verse as follows:
The knowers of Brahman say that absolute Jnanam, knowledge, which is akalpakam, devoid of all imagination (non-conceptual), and is therefore ajam, birthless…
We can see that here both Gaudapada and Shankara are stating that the nature of Jnana is basically the same as the Self, as follows:
-It is non-conceptual, ie. not of the intellect or mind. The work Gaudapada uses is akalpakam, which means without kalpas or without thought/concepts/imaginings. Earlier in Gaudapada Karika Gaudapada has in several successive verses driven home the point that the entire waking state is born of imagination (kalpa), so to state that Jnana is akalpalkam means that is it without any dream or waking state objects whatsoever. Shankara in his commentary has taken this meaning of the word kalpa to mean ‘imaginings’ in this sense.
-It is birthless and everlasting; and what is birthless and everlasting apart from the Self?
-It is known by itself (the birthless is known by the birthless), ie. it is the Self that ‘knows’ the Self by Its-Self. Here I have put the word ‘know’ in quotes as it is not knowledge in the normal sense, as knowledge in the mind is necessarily conceptual, but here we are speaking of or pointing to a non-conceptual ‘knowledge’, the word ‘knowledge’ being used for want of a better word to describe something that is essentially beyond description.
Later in his commentary on the same verse Shankara writes:
By that unborn knowledge, which is the very nature of the Self, is known – It knows by Itself – the birthless reality, which is the Self. The idea being conveyed is that the Self being ever a homogenous mass of Consciousness, like the sun that is by nature a constant light, does not depend on any other knowledge (for Its revelation).
Again, we can see that idea is that the nature of Self is Knowledge/Jnana, in the same way the nature of the sun is to shine.
The word ‘homogenous’ means without any variation whatsoever, ie. without any subtle or gross objects arising in the consciousness.
No phenomenal arisings in the Self/in Jnana
Shankara continues his commentary on Gaudapada’s Karika verse 3.33, commenting that with Self-realisation all ideation has been driven out of the mind, and that there are no external objects of perception present either. The mind becomes still, and the still mind is no-mind – it is verily the Self, Jnana:
It has been said that when the mind is divested of ideation by virtue of the realisation of Truth that is Brahman, and when there is an absence of external objects (of perception), it becomes tranquil, controlled, and withdrawn, like fire that has no fuel. And it has further been said that when the mind thus ceases to be mind, duality also disappears.
Gaudapada and Shankara have already stated that Jnana is akalpakam. Shankara explains in his commentary that this word akalpakam means that it is devoid of all imagination. It should be noted that in Chapter 2 Gaudapada has said that everything that arises in both the waking and dream states is due to imagination (kalpa), eg. in verses 2.10-2.12, so it should be clear that by stating Jnana is akalpakam it means it is without any objects.
In his commentary on verse 3.33 above, Shankara is stating that realisation occurs when the phenomenal arisings, gross and subtle, have all ceased to arise, duality disappears, ie. Jnana is attained, or the Self has been realised. He is building on the previous two verses from Gaudapada, 3.31 and 3.32 which have already established this:
3.31 All this that there is – together with all that move or does not move – is perceived by the mind (and therefore all is is but the mind); for when the mind ceases to be the mind, duality is no longer perceived.
3.32 When the Truth of Atman has been realised, the mind ceases to think; then the mind attains the state of not being the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, it becomes a non-perceiver.
You will also see that Jnana is being equated with a still mind – a mind that is no longer active – and a still mind that never moves again is no longer the mind – it is the Self. Again, for those of you who are familiar with Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, he has already made all of this clear to us. For those of you who are not convinced, we have Shankara’s commentary on these verses to make it all the clearer for us:
Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.31:
This duality as a whole, that is mano-drsyam, perceived by the mind; is nothing but the mind, which is itself imagined – this is the proposition [Tom: ie. meaning of the verse]. For duality endures so long as the mind does, and disappears with the disappearance of the mind.
For when the mind ceases to be mind when, like the illusory snake disappearing in the rope, the mind’s activity stops through the practice of discriminating insight and detachment, or when the mind gets absorbed in the state of sleep, duality is not perceived. From this non-existence is proved the unreality of duality. This is the purport. How does the mind cease to be the mind? This is being answered [in the next verse and commentary]:
We can see that Shankara is equating the mind with Maya and with ignorance , something that is commonly done in vedanta texts – eg. in Shankara’s Vivekachudamani. Shankara states that it is the mind that projects all of duality (as per Chapter’s 1 and 2 of Gaudapada’s Karika which states the same), and that duality ceases when the mind ceases. Shankara states that through discrimination (viveka) and detachment (vairagya) the mind’s activity stops, and so it is the still or unmoving mind that is the result of viveka and vairagya, which is exactly the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. When the mind is no longer active, duality is not perceived, Shankara’s states, like in deep sleep.
Shankara’s commentary on verse 3.32:
The Truth that is Self…The Truth of the Self which follows from the instruction of the scriptures and teacher, when as a consequence of that, there remains nothing to be thought of, and the mind does not think – as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things. At that time it attains the state of ceasing to be the mind. In the absence of things to be perceived, that mind becomes free from all illusion of perceptions. This is the idea.
Again, we see that Shankara is stating that the practice of viveka and vairagya (discrimination and renunciation) leads to the mind becoming still and this gives rise to realisation of Truth that is Self. Thereafter the mind stops thinking ‘as fire does not burn in the absence of combustible things’.
He, like Ramana, states that the mind feeds on sense objects or ‘things perceived’. In the ‘absence of things to be perceived‘, the mind no longer has any food or fuel and so burns out. This gives us the imagery of the flame of mind/egotism being extinguished, ie. nirvana, which literally means extinguishment (of a flame or fire).
Deep Sleep vs Stillness of Mind (Samadhi)
We have already covered 3.33 above. The next two verses, verse 3.34 and 3.35 explain the difference between the still or controlled mind and Deep Sleep – it is important note this only has to be done as Gaudapada has explained (and Shankara has agreed) that there are no gross or subtle objects present when the mind is stilled/controlled.
The natural question is therefore what is the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? If there were objects present when the mind is still, why the need to point out the difference between the Still Mind and Deep Sleep? Or surely the response would simply be that when the mind is controlled, objects are still or can still be present. However this is not the explaination given by Gaudapada, and Shankara is even stronger in his commentary.
I will not go into these verses here, as we are straying from the essence of this post, but you are welcome to look them up yourself. Sri Ramana Maharshi has given his own explanation of the difference between the still mind and deep sleep which you can read hereif you wish, and you will find that it is essentially the same explanation given by both Gaudapada and Shankara.
A Practical Method for Self-Realisation
Thereafter next few verses carry on along similar lines reiterating similar points – you can find some of them here.
Finally Gaudapada ends chapter three in a marvellous crescendo by describing a practical method to attain liberation for those who remain stuck in Maya (Shankara in his commentary states that the method is for those who remain unliberated and fearful), which you can read on this link below.
You will see that Gaudapada is stating that the means to liberation is to control, or make still, the mind. We can infer that this is also the way to Jnana. He then outlines a method on how to still the mind, pointing out what the still mind is and what it isn’t:
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, verse 4.4.20, states the following:
20. It [Brahman] should be realised in one form only, (for) It is unknowable and eternal. The Self is taintless, beyond the (subtle) ether, birthless, infinite and constant.
Here we can see that the Upanishad is stating that Brahman is unknowable. So what of Self-Knowledge or knowledge of Brahman that is so often spoken about? Shankara explains this contradiction in him commentary on this verse:
The knowledge of Brahman too means only the cessation of the identification with extraneous things (such as the body). The relation of identity with It [Brahman] has not to be directly established, for it is already there. Everybody always has that identity with It, but it appears to be related to something else. Therefore the scriptures do not enjoin that identity with Brahman should be established, but that the false identification with things other than That should stop. When the identification with other things is gone, that identity with one’s own Self which is natural, becomes isolated; this is expressed by the statement that the Self is known. In Itself It is unknowable – not comprehended through any means. Hence both statements are consistent.
We can see that Shankara is stating that Brahman is indeed unknowable, and that Jnana, or knowledge, only signifies the cessation of identification with extraneous things, ie. loss of identification with objects, specifically the body-mind. We do not need to affirm our identity as Brahman, as we already are and always have been and always will be Brahman. Any affirmation of Brahman would simply be on the level of thought or concepts, and so it would be Maya, or more ignorance. But once the false identification has been removed, then the Self naturally shines as itself, and this lack of wrong-knowledge, or lack of wrongly identifying as the body-mind, is what is called ‘Jnana’ or ‘knowledge’.
This is a very important verse from Shankara. Most people concentrate on the point being made about samadhi when reading this verse, but note how it states that manana is ‘one hundred times’ superior to sravana.
Yesterday in Satsang, we were talking about manana and how we can do this more effectively, and how this naturally will lead to nididhyasana and then samadhi and then full realisation. You will start to find that the motivation to do practice will increase.
Thinking about the teachings, seeing the tricks the ego keeps on playing on you to perpetuate itself, seeing the very nature of the ego for yourself, writing this all down and reflecting upon it means the ego has less room to manoevure. Write down all your thoughts, write down all your insights, get it all on paper.
At this point in the teaching it is helpful to do this as the mind, being very fickle and forgetful will quickly forget the insights you have previously made, thus perpetuating itself.
As you engage with this aspect of the teaching, you will see how just powerful it indeed is, how the ego has less and less room to move in, how the ego weakens naturally, and how peace and love more and more come into you, merging with your very Being.
If You are That, if all is already Brahman, why the need for effort? Here is what Shankara has to say about this in his masterpiece Vivekachudamani. What do you think these verses from Shankara’s Vivekachudamani are trying to convey?
If you are interested in my view, I explain more about this teaching here.
62. A disease does not leave off if one simply utter the name of the medicine, without taking it; (similarly) without direct realisation one cannot be liberated by the mere utterance of the word Brahman.
63. Without causing the objective universe to vanish and without knowing the truth of the Self, how is one to achieve Liberation by the mere utterance of the word Brahman?- It would result merely in an effort of speech.
64. Without killing one’s enemies, and possessing oneself of the splendour of the entire surrounding region, one cannot claim to be an emperor by merely saying, ‘I am an emperor’ merely in an effort of speech.
65. As a treasure hidden underground requires (for its extraction) competent instruction, excavation, the removal of stones and other such things lying above it and (finally) grasping, but never comes out by being (merely) called out by name, so the transparent Truth of the self, which is hidden by Maya and its effects, is to be attained through the instructions of a knower of Brahman, followed by reflection, meditation and so forth, but not through perverted arguments.
66. Therefore the wise should, as in the case of disease and the like, personally strive by all the means in their power to be free from the bondage of repeated births and deaths.