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six disciplines consisting of Shama, Dama, Uparati, Titiksha, Shraddha and Samadhana in which the mind is progressively withdrawn from the sense objects and focused onto the pure sense of being (‘Sat’ or ‘Pure Brahman’)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.

Creating then resolving the duality of awareness vs objects in awareness

The following are adapted from recent Facebooks posts of mine
http://www.facebook.com/tomdas.nd

The body-mind entity can accept, reject or be indifferent to things. This is relative acceptance and is an action that can be performed. Awareness is all-accepting, always embracing ‘what is’. This is total/absolute acceptance and is not something that you can do, but something that can be recognised as already being here.


Awareness cannot accept or reject anything, as it does nothing. It just is: present and aware. All actions occur at the level of the body and mind (and world).

Awareness could be said to unconditonally/choicelessly ‘accept’ everything that occurs within it, in the same way a mirror ‘choicelessly accepts’ the reflection within it.

…but actually, as this example illustrates, the mirror-like awareness is not actually doing anything apart from ‘being itself’.


In the way I speak about this, awareness cannot identify with anything. It is only the mind that identifies with/as the mind.

Or to put it differently, thought imagines it’s a thinker and believes itself.

Awareness is ever-free, just like the mirror in the example above


Through identifying with choiceless awareness/consciousness for sometime, the ego/doer is seen through and no longer identified with. Then the identification as being choiceless awareness/consciousness also can be dropped.

What we are left with is ‘just this’: simple, direct, beyond words. This is the ‘realm beyond verbal teachings’.
Here the apparent duality conceptualised by differentiating (viveka) between that-which-changes (objects) and that which doesn’t change in our experience (the subject, I) is resolved into non-duality.

THE LIGHT THAT SHINES WITHIN

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There is a light. A light that shines within. You can call it the light of consciousness. It is the light by which we can see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think. When we close our eyes and imagine something, it is also illumined by this inner light. When we imagine only darkness but are still thinking, this ‘light’ is that which ‘illumines’ our thoughts as well as the darkness. We know both light and dark because of it. It also illumines our dreams as well as our waking life.

Have you ever noticed this light, this inner light? Have you ever noticed how, peculiarly, it never changes? It is the one constant: your thoughts and opinions have no doubt changed over time; your body has grown and altered over years past; your emotions most probably fluctuate throughout the day. But the light by which you are conscious/aware of these remains the same.

Imagine yourself as a young child. Do you remember what it was like to be you back then? Try to picture a specific memory in your mind. Do you, like me, have a sense that you were basically the same person then as you are now? If so, what is it now that is the same as then? As I said, your thoughts,body and feelings have all changed over time, but something remains the same, unchanged. What is that unchanged essence? This is the inner presence-light that cannot be put into words but is always there.

That light can also be felt as a presence. Actually, it cannot be felt as anything, rather through it feeling occurs and presence is felt. For though it perceives, it cannot be perceived. For though it illumines, it cannot be illuminated/seen (just like how electricity which illumines a light bulb cannot be seen). But it is undeniably present (Please note that putting this into words makes something that is as simple as our own being seem overly complex. If you stick to your own direct experience, you will see how simple it all is).

From the point of view of your own direct experience of living, this illuminating-presence is the essence of what you are. No matter what happens to you, it is unscathed, unchanged, unharmed, unmodified.

‘Blades do not pierce it, fire does not burn it, waters do not wet it, and the wind does not parch it’
Bhagavad Gita 2.23

If you believe your thoughts and take yourself to be a limited body-mind entity, this aware-presence can be felt as something external looking down at you – it can be felt as God’s ever-present gaze lovingly embracing you.

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
Acts 17:28

If however you remain silent, as thoughts subside this sense of identification can fall away and you can see that this presence is actually the essence of what you already are. We can see that our true-nature is awareness-consciousness-spirit.

‘The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.’
Meister Eckhart

Know that spirit or light within cannot be described or pinned down. It is everywhere, as light is everywhere, but it is no particular thing. Any object you can see/feel/perceive is not that spirit-light. It cannot be experienced, as it is that which allows experience to occur – it transcends experience. And while it is no particular thing and no particular experience, without it no things would be experienced. In this sense all things are dependent on it.

‘They can’t say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ You see, the kingdom of God is within you.’
Luke 17:21

This is the divine essence that resides in each and every one of us. See, if you believe in God but do not have a feel for this inner spirit-light, then your god is simply a projection of your mind/thought. If however you feel this inner light, then what need have you for belief? Divine spirit is already here lighting up and animating your life. Instead learn to trust it, have faith in it – it is not a projection, but a sense of eternal unchanging presence that is always there patiently waiting, patiently supporting you. Pay attention to it throughout the day, allow it to seep into your being, engulf you and wash you clean.

‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him,and he will make straight your paths.’
Proverbs 3:5-6

Lean on Spirit, the innermost essence of you, and see what happens. Allow God to reveal herself to you. Like falling asleep, this is not something you can do, but something you have to allow to happen.

‘Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.’
Bhagavad Gita 18.66

Ultimately God is beyond all concepts and labels, even concepts of consciousness or inner light. All concepts of the ultimate dissolve in that Unnameable Reality.