We know little about the life of Shankara, the founder of Advaita as a philosophical system. It is now known that he must have lived about a.d. 700, but the earliest surviving circumstantial account of his life is the Shankara Digvijaya of Madhava, apparently written in the fourteenth century. This noble and beautifully written work has many merits of a poetic order, but is not intended to be solely a historical record of known fact. It is in fact a formal epic poem, written according to the canons of fictional composition, not those of historical enquiry. But although we cannot always expect to find historical truth in its pages, or to be able to sift the core of true tradition from the abundance of edifying fantasy, it can perhaps help us to assimilate the true atmosphere of Advaita, in that it sums up what were felt to be appropriate and justifiable beliefs about the life of Shankara in traditional Advaitic circles at the time the work was written.
The short section devoted to Trotaka (or Totaka, the word has both forms) occurs two-thirds of the way through the work in the course of the description of the Archarya’s sojourn at Shringeri, the wild and beautiful spot near the banks of the Tungabhadra river in south-west India which has since become the pontifical seat of the Advaitic monastic organization. Slightly abbreviated, the account runs somewhat as follows:—
The teacher had a pupil of a thoroughly responsive disposition, very conscientious, alert and able with his hands, little given to talking. He was extremely assiduous in personal service to the teacher. He would always take his own bath before that of the teacher, and would then prepare a smooth and comfortable seat for the latter. He used to keep the stick the teacher used for cleaning his teeth, and would supply him with this and other articles such as earth and water whenever they were needed for his toilet. Every day he was ready with a towel at the teacher’s bath, and in general followed him like a shadow. He was particularly skilful in massaging his feet. He never yawned in the presence of the teacher, and, if he had occasion to sit down, did so without stretching out his legs at ease. He never omitted to carry out the teacher’s orders, spoke little and never showed the teacher his back. He provided whatever the teacher needed even without being asked, and saw to it very carefully that the teacher was never unnecessarily inconvenienced.
One day, it happened that he was still down at the river washing his loin-cloth when the teacher was about to begin his commentary on the holy texts, and the latter, ever affectionate and loving to all his devoted pupils, waited for him to return before beginning the class. A large assembly of pupils had collected, and they were about to recite the peace- chant to open the meeting when the teacher restrained them, saying, “Wait just one moment, and then we shall have Giri with us too.” Giri was the abbreviated form of the name Anandagiri by which the pupil was affectionately addressed. At this point Padmapada, the pupil with the greatest pretensions to scholarship, looked up at the wall opposite with a sarcastic grimace, as much as to say, “what is the use of waiting for a complete idiot who has not even knowledge of Sanskrit and other necessary qualifications for being admitted to the study of the holy works?”
Partly to teach Padmapada a lesson, and partly through an overflow of compassionate feeling for one who had fully taken refuge at his feet, the teacher then and there injected the contents of the fourteen traditional sciences into Giri’s mind. At that very moment, Giri broke out into a discourse on the highest metaphysical reality, spoken in charming verses of the Trotaka metre. This was indeed the flowering of the creeper of true devotion to the teacher, rooted in his lotus feet, supported by him alone, perfumed with the spray of the nectar of his compassion, now finally graced with the fruit of poetic composition waving to the delightful rhythm of the Trotaka metre. And the assembled pupils fed upon it eagerly, like a flock of so many splendid parrots.
For the aspirant truly desirous of transcending the three worlds, service of the teacher is truly a ladder set down upon earth but reaching up to the topmost vaults of the ether. Those who ascend it pass beyond the ignorance and gloom of terrestrial existence. Though he was not hitherto able to understand the meaning even of the most simple Sanskrit hymn of praise, by the sheer grace of the teacher Giri now became a sage expounding the meaning of the Upanishads in verses of the Trotaka metre. From thenceforward, he became known at the behest of the teacher as Trotaka Acharya, and became famous as such throughout the whole world. Those who remain solely attached to the bliss of the Self through scaling the heights of the doctrine of holy Shankara spew out far all desire for the joys of a palace echoing with the murmur of the bees that haunt the musty elephants chained to its gates. And thus it was that the great ascetic, aureoled in splendour white as the foam of the churning of the ocean and brilliant as the shimmering tint of its oozing nectar, whose very glance was enough to burn up the paths of the unrighteous, continued to live happily in company with his invincible pupils.
Another account of the incident, this time in prose, which differs in a few particulars from the above, has been printed by Swami Kevalananda in the Sanskrit introduction to his edition of Trotaka’s main work, the Shruti Sara Samud- dharana or Extract of the Essence of the Upanishads. But exact evaluation of historical evidence is not our prime purpose here. Let us recall, rather, the remark of Al Ghazali that those who, not themselves gifted with prophetic power, deny the existence of such and of supernatural occurrences associated therewith, are in the position of a blind man roundly denying the existence of colour.
Two works of Trotaka have come down to us. A hymn of eight verses in the Trotaka metre, affirming sole refuge in Shankara; and a work called the Extract of the Essence of the Upanishads, which is likewise uniformly in the Trotaka metre except for its honorific verses, and which expounds the main features of Shankara’s doctrine at a length equal to about half the Naishkarmya Siddhi. The main feature of
Trotaka’s work is one that might have been expected in the light of the traditions about him that have come down to us —extreme fidelity to the doctrines and terminology of Shankara as we find them in the prose commentaries and Upadesha Sahasri. In this he stands in some contrast to Sureshwara and Padmapada, the other two direct pupils of Shankara whose work has survived, who were both powerful independent thinkers, not content to leave Shankara’s nescience-conception exactly as it stood in the master’s writings. As a consequence, Trotaka founded no “school” of Advaita, and though, under the name of Anandagiri, he appears to have been the first Abbot of the monastery called Joshimat founded by Shankara eighteen miles from Badrinath on the Himalayan pilgrim routes, his importance in the philosophical development is not great. Much of his thought seems to be borrowed from the Brahma Sutra Commentary and Upadesha Sahasri of his master, some from the Naishkarmya Siddhi, some from Gaudapada. A few of his characteristic positions are subjoined below. Numbers placed in parentheses indicate the verse-numbers of the Shruti Sara Samuddharana or Extract of the Essence of the Upanishads.
For Trotaka, the core of Advaita is the practical realization of the real nature of the Self as infinite being and intelligence —he leaves out of account the bliss aspect, just as his master does in the Upadesha Sahasri. The proper candidate for this realization is one who has already become convinced of the transient character of worldly experience and has therefore become disgusted with it and renounced all connection with worldly life and its ritualistic duties. Ultimately, the realization can only proceed from an awakening brought about through hearing the text “that thou art” from a teacher who has himself acquired the practical realization of its meaning (3) . But in order even to understand the text, preliminary philosophising is required, and of this Trotaka supplies some examples.
To begin with, none can understand the text which promotes realization unless he has already convinced himself in advance that his real self is other than the empirically revealed body or mind. Now, in order to understand the Advaitic account of the nature of the Self, we must consider first the Advaitic root-axiom that whatever is real is changeless and eternal. We need not enquire into the origin or validity of this principle here.
It is the ancient doctrine of Parmenides from which the “laws of thought” are derived and which lies hidden at the back of all Western logical thinking, though the practical genius of the West was never able to sustain and preserve it in its pure metaphysical form, and at one time, the Middle Ages, even endeavoured to combine it with the radically opposed Judaic doctrine of the creato ex nihilo (creation from nothing). Suffice it to remark that what argumentation Trotaka offers in support of it is drawn partly from Gaudapada, an earlier Advaitin. He argues that everything that comes into being passes away, and because it did not exist before it came into existence and does not exist after it has passed away, it must be accounted “not truly existent” even in the period of its manifestation (133). This is the case, for instance, with bangles formed from gold (134).
The bangles are not anything new added to the gold, as is proved by the fact that the gold does not weigh more after being fashioned into them (136). Nor are they ever perceived apart from gold. Only the material cause, the gold, is real (137). This example may be applied to pure being and generalized to include all that becomes, the whole phenomenal world. Only its material cause, pure being, is real. The modes that the latter assumes are transitory and hence not truly real (asatya).
Only the cause is real, and that is eternal, changeless. Trotaka does not specify the exact grade of reality that should be assigned to the modes. He is content with the assertions that the real is eternal and changeless and that the modes are not strictly real. He admits that the real assumes modes (vikriti=vikara), but denies that they can be regarded as strictly real. What is transient cannot be strictly real because (1) nothing real ever comes into being, and (2) nothing real can ever pass away (145).
If we return now to the problem of the nature of the Self, we find, in this context, clear evidence that the real is changeless and does not undergo modification. For the modifications of the mind are ever changing and transient, yet because they are witnessed one and all by the Self as intelligence we know that the latter must be different from them, changeless and constant (10). And we may deduce, further, that the mind itself is but an inert object, requiring to be illumined by the Self as intelligence (12). This principal of intelligence is the real “thou” of the candidate.
In empirical experience, the intellect functions both as an object and as a subject, an “I”. The I-function appears in unenlightened experience to be a characteristic (dharma) of the real Self, though in reality it is a characteristic not of the Self but of the intellect which has to be illumined by the Self (15). The erroneous notion that the Self is or has an “I” is the ground of all empirical experience. For it is only the intellect, inert, material and changeable in character, that can acquire a colouring (uparaga) from the object through the medium of the senses—not the Self, which is changeless and not subject to modification. Hence it is only the false identification between intellect and pure intelligence occurring on the part of the intellect as illumined by the pure intelligence that permits the notion “I am perceiving an object” (16, 20). Only when this false identification has one taken place do the senses proceed out to their objects (19). Only then can practical life proceed.
The intelligence is changeless, revealed as such through reflection on experience as the implicate thereof. Whatever is changeless is eternal and real. Whatever is eternal is partless (cp. Parmenides). What is partless cannot enter into connection with another. Therefore the pure intelligence cannot stand in any real connection with the intellect and its modification, the ego-sense (29). Further, the ego-sense cannot be a quality (guna) of the Self, as the Vaiseshika philosophers maintain. For the ego-sense comes and goes—it is absent, for instance, in deep sleep—whereas the Self is constant and eternal. There is no instance of a transient quality really inhering in an eternal constant substrate (25).
But if the intellect and its ego-sense are not qualities of pure intelligence, how is their relation to the pure intelligence to be described at all? It can only be described in terms of metaphors derived from illusions of common experience. For example, the space in a room appears to be delimited by the pots it contains. But there is no actual delimitation. For if the pots are removed from the room, they do not carry the space they “contain” with them.
Similarly, the Self appears to be circumscribed by the intellect and related to it as its witness. But it is not actually so circumscribed or related (7). Or again, the sun reflected in the water of several pots appears to be many, but in fact it remains one and the same. Similarly, from the standpoint of the individual intellect, the Self appears to be different as reflected in each individual intellect. But in fact the Self is one and the same. The connection between the Self and intellect is apparent, not real (ibid).
The Self of man is not the body or the intellect and its ego-sense but the pure intelligence that witnesses the transformations of the intellect. Nothing of the phenomenal realm belongs to it, neither the five elements, nor the three constituents (guna), nor the senses, nor the intellect, nor the three states of waking, dreaming and sleep. It may be called “the fourth” to indicate that it is the pure intelligence illumining the three successive states of waking, dream and sleep— and for this very reason different from them. Otherwise it should be characterized negatively. It does not act and cannot be identified with action (164). It has no relation with the world of plurality.
It is no more changed by nescience and liberation than the sun is changed by day or night (163). When the Upanishads teach that the Self created the world and entered into it their sole purpose is to teach that the Self is pure being. For it is a principle of Vedic exegesis that only those passages of the Veda which give information that is both unattainable through any other means of knowledge and of practical benefit to man are to be regarded as authoritative statements of fact. But what human purpose could be served by a knowledge of the manner of creation? (44). In fact, there was no creation of the world. For the world is not truly existent (45).
The individual soul and the Supreme Self are in fact eternally identical (84). Yet man must be awakened to this identity through hearing the holy text “that thou art”. Trotaka illustrates this idea from the Ramayana. In that epic, the hero, Rama, is Himself God or Vishnu. But through His own power of illusory and fascinating projection (maya), He deludes Himself in sport into the conviction “I am Rama” and in this condition enters His own creation to kill the demon Ravana. Then, when He has killed the demon, the Gods sing His praises as Vishnu, and this re-awakens Him to the awareness that He is really Vishnu (85). For Shankara and his immediate pupils, it must be remembered, Vishnu is in no way different from the highest Self—He is the bare witness and His activity is only an appearance. Thus even for Vishnu Himself, re-awakening from nescience is dependent on the teaching of others (ibid).
All the texts of the Upanishads co-operate, when properly understood, to teach the doctrine of the identity of the individual soul with the highest Self. But the direct and culminating instruction comes from the text “that thou art” (46-48). In regard to this text, Trotaka shows himself anxious to combat the view, widely held in his day, that “that thou art” was intended to be the subject of a merely symbolic meditation— i.e. that the candidate should meditate on his individual personality on the mere supposition that it was the highest Self, in the manner that one might meditate on an image as being Vishnu. Some philosophers—Mimamsakas—held that the idea contained in the meditation was false and that its purpose was to give the meditator an exalted idea of himself, so that he would become less liable to be deflected from carrying out the Vedic ritual by the demands of his lower animal nature. Others—pre-Shankara Vedantins—held that the meditation had a magical power, analogous to the magical power of the Vedic ritual, to convert the individual into the Absolute. According to Trotaka, the latter school defended their position with the argument that if the soul were really already identical with the highest Self it would necessarily be aware of the fact and so there would be no need of Revelation to be informed of it.
Against this view, Trotaka remarks that those passages of the Veda which enjoin symbolic meditations are normally accompanied by a clearly stated verb of command, but that this is not to be found in the passage of the Chandogya Upanishad in which “that thou art” occurs (55-57). It cannot be connected with a verb of command except by extracting the latter arbitrarily from some other section (88). Further, in those cases where the Chandogya Upanishad enjoins meditations on various objects as symbols of the real it does not identify those objects with the real, but treats them as products thereof. Further, if the individual soul were really different from the highest Self it could never be made identical therewith by meditation. For if two things are of different nature, nothing can make them identical. Have the alchemists ever succeeded completely in converting iron into gold? (97-100). Worshipful meditation is moreover an action, and the results of actions have a beginning in time and so an end also. Permanent identification with the highest Self could never be achieved through action.
As regards the grammatical analysis of “that thou art”, Trotaka observes that “thou art” should be taken together first and then construed with “that”. It follows, he holds, that it is the individual soul that is identified with the highest Self, not the highest Self with the individual soul.
If the individual soul and the highest Self were really different, they could never become identical through a text. The text “that thou art” introduces no change. Positively expressed, it causes awakening (71). It brings to an end the error of attributing the plurality of the objective to the highest Self. Through it alone, man achieves liberation. Without it, the process of transmigration goes on under the law of karma that actions produce their fruits (91-93).