The Tree of knowledge
The Mind of Sri Adi Shankaracharya
Sri Adi Shankaracharya Jayanti (birthday) was celebrated yesterday, on 26 April 2012.
The fundamental principle of Shankara’s teaching is that the pure, innermost “Self” is the ultimate reality. This self (which must not be confused with the “ego”) is a spiritual kernel of the same kind as Brahman or Godhead, the ultimate reality.
When a man overcomes ignorance, “avidya”, and grasps intuitively that the Universe is merely an external phenomenon, and realises identity between the Self and Brahman, he becomes a “liberated” soul, waiting only for his final liberation body by death. The Self or Brahman cannot be described, because it has no “qualities” in the ordinary sense; it is sometimes said to be of the nature of pure being, pure consciousness and pure bliss. The material universe of forms and things is grounded in Brahman, but its formation therefrom cannot be described or formulated. It functions on the basis of the law of “karma”, that is, of cause and effect; but its ultimate cause is Brahman, which has created the material world and started the process of change that we see occurring in that world.
All creation is, however, “Maya” or the power of illusion. Within the realm of maya, the universe exists and can be conceived as a creation of Brahman, who can also be conceived as a personal God; though from the standpoint of ultimate reality even a personal deity is a product of maya. The causal law itself is ultimately unintelligible, because it is an illusory concept of name and form. There is no more essential difference between effect and cause than between a moulded pot and the clay from which it is made. The world, as caused by Brahman, is an illusory superimposition (adhyasa) of phenomenon on the basic reality – like a rope» which is mistaken for a snake or the mirage-lake seen on the desert sand. It follows logically therefore that Shankara should urge the renunciation of transitory things and the acquisition of “right knowledge” as the only means of attaining “liberation”.
Coming now to Shankara’s view on the sources of right knowledge, it is important to note than Shankara did not advance any new doctrine of his own; his philosophy was an exposition — and to some extent a codification — of the traditional utterances of the Upanishadic sages. For Shankara, the Hindu scriptures were of superhuman origin, and their authority was valid absolutely in matters outside our physical experience; they expressed the mind of God. He accepted conception in the mind and perception of “outside” objects also as sources of knowledge. But these sources have their limitations and cannot lead man to that reality which is the goal of all right knowledge.
Because he relies so much on scriptural authority, it must not be thought that Shankara denies the validity of reason. The role of reason, however, is limited. It cannot establish truth. It can only establish relations and examine the veracity of propositions. Reasoning cannot be carried on without propositions. But every proposition is itself established by reasoning from some other proposition or propositions. These propositions in turn must have been derived by reasoning from others. Thus we are faced with two alternatives: (1) to pursue an infinite regress, which in the end is more or less bound to lead to reasoning in a circle; or (2) to admit openly that some propositions are in the nature of axioms, which cannot be established by reasoning, and which, if valid, must owe their veracity to some other source.
In fact, we “know” that there are such axioms, in particular the axioms regarding the reasoning process itself. For instance, reasoning proceeds on the axiom, among others, that if there are two inconsistent propositions one of them must be wrong; the truth cannot be self-contradictory. This axiom clearly cannot be established by reasoning, because it is the very condition of reasoning and is presupposed by it. Shankara’s comment is characteristic: “Those who attempt, by means of ratiocination, to realise knowledge which reveals the ratiocination itself are such great souls as would bum fire itself by means of fuel.”
In the philosophical use of the term therefore, Shankara is not a “rationalist”. He does not, for example, try to establish the existence of God by arguments. Shankara recognizes straightaway that reasoning leads back to axioms that cannot be analysed or explained by reasoning. He had already noticed in his day that the rationalist thinkers came to inconsistent conclusions. “The Veda, as contrasted with their systems, is eternal and infallible.”
But Shankara is not anti-rational. Reason as applied to the facts of experiment is to him an indispensable means in the search after reality; but reason has to be employed only as the tool of intuition, as a critical weapon for testing raw assumptions. Even the scriptures are not exempt from critical examination; they, too, must be rational, and Shankara is at pains to show that they are. Perception is also valid in its proper field. In those realms of enquiry that are open to perception and inference, scripture is reckoned as unimportant. Scripture must also conform to the observed facts, which bear the mark of certitude through direct experience: even scripture has not the right to say that fire is cold. “The purpose of the scriptural text is not to alter existing things, but to reveal them as they really are.”
When Shankara says that the scriptures are eternal and infallible, he means no more than that they contain incontrovertible truth valid for all time, and that they are impersonal and so not vitiated by the proclivities and predilections of lay human beings. “A knowledge of reality as it is — reality which is quite unfathomable but on which man’s final liberation depends — cannot even be distantly guessed without the help of the scriptures. For… this is something not falling within the ken of direct perception because there is no colour or other qualities in it; and not within the realm of inference because there are no features in it for inference to lay hold of.”
Claiming absolute authority for the scriptures did not make Shankara’s task any easier; for the Upanishads bristle with paradoxical statements, and sometimes on the face of it, flat contradictions. Nevertheless, the underlying unity is there, and it is a measure of Shankara’s greatness that he had not only the sharpness of intellect, but also the insight required to give consistent philosophical statement to the voluminous material he had inherited from the saints and sages of his tradition. A great many of the apparent contradictions in the Upanishads disappear when one applies the distinction between “lower” and “higher” knowledge which Shankara developed — between scripture, ritual observances, and intellectual study on the one hand, and the sheer intuitive power by which reality is apprehended on the other.
Until the last vestige of “avidya” or ignorance is removed, however, it is not possible for man to conceive of a Brahman or reality without qualities. As long as he has to live in the world, man must use any tool which comes to hand to achieve his own liberation. His finite mind cannot contain the infinite, but he can use that mind as a thorn to extract the thorn of ignorance embedded in the Self. The point of the first thorn is the “lower” knowledge which teaches in relative and worldly terms the relation of the world to the ultimate reality conceived as a God with qualities, who is a symbol — but within man’s conceiving — of the indescribable Brahman without qualities.
Extracts from ‘The Mind of Adi Shankaracharya’ by YK Menon
You are welcome to contribute. Write to: