Transliteration Key

SankarAcArya, following the upanishads, asserts that the sole cause of the universe is the One brahman that is really nirguNa. The problem with asserting One brahman that is without parts, changeless and eternal, as the only cause of the universe is this - the universe is normally perceived to be full of many separate parts which change all the time, and has little that is eternal in it. How is it that the changeless and non-relational brahman produces the variegated universe? This is related to the larger philosophical problem of change and continuity, which had historically played such a big role in Indian thinking that many buddhist schools had denied that an eternal entity like brahman could even exist. Moreover, in the buddhist schools, the notion of an Atman is itself an erroneous concept, because everything was defined to be momentary.

Among the brahminical schools, the nyAya and vaiSeshika schools handled the problem of change by postulating atoms (aNus) as the unit constituents of any entity. Transformation and change were explained by means of combinations of integral numbers of atoms (dvayaNuka, trayaNuka etc.), and the individual Atman was also supposed to be atomic in size and qualities. A creator God (ISvara) was arrived at by an inferential argument, on the premise that everything must have a cause of some sort, so that the cause of the universe is God. This inferred ISvara was then identified with the brahman of the vedas. The yoga and sAm.khya schools postulated ultimate reality to be a duality of purusha and prakRti. The purusha was said to be changeless and the one undergoing bondage and liberation owing to contact with or withdrawal from prakRti. All change was then described as the working of prakRti, which deluded the purusha into activity and thus into bondage (bandha). Liberation (moksha) for the purusha arose only when the purusha dissociated completely from the workings of prakRti. Meanwhile, the position of a creator God remained ambivalent in the sAm.khya system. Most classical sAm.khya authors denied the necessity of an ISvara, while some were willing to postulate ISvara as an eternally liberated purusha. The yoga system, as expounded in the yoga-sUtras of patanjali, accepted ISvara and made ISvara-praNidhana an essential aspect of yogic sAdhana.

The pUrva mImAm.sA system was concerned primarily with asserting the eternal value of the vedas, and interpreted everything in the vedas in the context of ritual action. Consequently, impelling the listener to action was asserted to be the over-riding purpose of the vedas. The fruit of the ritual action was also mentioned in the same vedas, and the highest fruit that was obtainable by the proper performance of ritual action was heaven. On this view, the individual Atman attained heaven by the performance of Vedic ritual, and returned to the cycle of rebirths otherwise. On the other hand, the aupanishada tradition which gave birth to the mature vedAnta systems asserted an eternal Atman forcefully. This Atman was also held to be beyond birth and death. Physical death only meant that the Atman took another body. Moreover, the upanishads declare the Atman to be ultimately the same as the One brahman which is the sole cause of the universe.

The upanishads relate a higher vision that is mystic and that does not demand to be logically substantiated. The problem of the one brahman creating the diverse universe was handled by means of various analogies, as in the chAndogya upanishad. The nature of the Indian philosophical traditions, however, required every new teacher to not only relate his vision of reality, but also to substantiate it by logical arguments. The naiyyAyikas, the buddhists and the grammarians had developed methods of logical analysis, including inducto-deductive reasoning, evaluating the validity of cognitions with a consistent theory of language and meaning, and rigorous requirements of consistency and non-contradiction. Analogies did play an important part in the logical analysis, but the spirit of the times called for more intellectual speculation and rationalization. This was the prime motivation for bAdarAyaNa's brahmasUtras, which attempted to harmonize the many teachings of the upanishads into one consistent system. The brahmasUtras are therefore called the nyAya-prasthAna (not to be confused with the independent philosophical system of the nyAya).

The gauDapAdIya kArikAs and Sankara's bhAshyas follow in the same spirit. In establishing the main tenets of advaita vedAnta, Sankara drew upon mImAm.sA theories of perception and language, and sAm.khya notions of the transformations of prakRti. He also gave a place for yogic practice in his system, and used nyAya methods of inferential reasoning wherever appropriate. This was coupled with a critique of the logical shortcomings of these systems and rejecting those tenets which were not in accordance with the thought of the upanishads. Thus, for example, he accepted mImAm.sA rules of exegesis, but pointed out that their applicability was limited largely to the karma-kANDa, the upanishads requiring different methods of interpretation. Similarly, he denied an independent existence to the sAm.khyan prakRti, and in his analysis of the relation of the universe to brahman, made the equivalent mAyA completely dependent upon the reality of brahman. maNDAna miSra, Sankara's contemporary, also developed powerful arguments that denied ultimate reality to difference. Between Sankara and maNDana, advaita vedAnta became the most important school of vedAnta, and indeed of all Indian philosophical thought. However, after this time, the followers of rival schools started re-evaluating their positions, modifying their views and began posing new objections to advaita. The later teachers in the advaita tradition lived and worked in such a milieu.

Among the works of Sankara's immediate disciples (8th century CE), toTaka's SrutisArasamuddhAraNa did not attract sub-commentaries from later authors, while no texts attributed to hastAmalaka were widely known. sureSvara's upanishad-bhAshya-vArttikAs and the naishkarmayasiddhi, and padmapAda's pancapAdikA influenced the course of post-Sankaran advaita vedAnta significantly. Soon after their time, vAcaspati miSra (9th century CE), wrote his bhAmatI commentary on Sankara's brahmasUtra bhAshya, and prakASAtman (10th century CE) wrote a vivaraNa to the pancapAdikA. Later authors sometimes wrote independent treatises of their own, but more often chose an earlier text to comment upon, thus building up sets of commentaries and sub-commentaries, which make the philosophical views of the sub-schools clearer. These authors may be classified under four heads for the sake of convenience -

Both the bhAmatI and vivaraNa lines base themselves upon differing interpretations of SankarAcArya's brahmasUtra bhAshya. Since the brahmasUtras continued to be the defining source for all vedAnta schools, the bhAmatI and vivaraNa schools attained the most prominence in the dialogue that developed between advaita and rival vedAnta schools on the one hand, and advaita vedAnta and non-vedAnta schools on the other.


Last updated on May 5, 1999.

Back The advaita home page