Mandana Mishra’s theory of nescience

Mandana Mishra was a contemporary of Shri Shankara. He wrote on Mimamsa, on Upanishadic Absolutism and on another form of Absolutism derived from the speculations of the grammarians on the creative power of the word. His chief contribution to Upanishadic Absolutism was his Brahma Siddhi. It is remarkable that this work contains a number of technical doctrines which became the common heritage of Shri Shankara’s followers, beginning with his personal pupils, but which are not to be found amongst works which can be attributed with certainty to Shri Shankara himself. Chitsukha wrote a commentary on the Brahma Siddhi which is extant in manuscript form practically complete, and Vachaspati Mishra, an avowed follower of Mandana, tried to synthesize his doctrines with those of Shri Shankara in his Bhamati. Mandana was also a great pioneer in pure dialectic, and the masterpieces of the later Advaitins in this field owe much to his original stimulus. Nevertheless the central part of the theoretical side of his doctrine—the view that nescience is many and located in the individual jivas—never gained general acceptance amongst Shri Shankara’s followers, for reasons which we will endeavour now briefly to discuss.

Mandana did not hold that knowledge of Brahman is open to our unaided powers. But he held that when the nature of Brahman as intelligence and bliss has been ascertained from the Upanishads (on a system, incidentally, which gave priority to the negative texts and which was decisively rejected by the masters of post-Shankara Advaita), the knowledge so gained could be formulated as a rationally defensible proposition. On the other hand the changing world that is presented to our view cannot rationally be made out either as being of the very nature of the pure intelligence or as being a separate independent entity, neither as real nor as completely unreal. So we call it nescience (avidya), or may a, a false appearance (mithyavabhasa—Brahma Siddhi, Sanskrit Text, p. 9). Being demonstrably different from changeless Brahman it cannot be real; but being an object of actual experience (unlike a flower growing in the sky) it cannot be completely unreal. Its reality-status is therefore indeterminable (anirvachaniya). And Mandana added that unless this view is accepted it is impossible to make sense of the Vedic tradition at all. For if bondage were unreal the teachings in the Veda about liberation would be useless, and if it were real they would be directed to a goal that was impossible of attainment (ibid, p. 20). No beginning can be assigned to nescience, and hence it is useless to look for a cause of it. It must be accepted as a natural fact (ibid, p. 11). Its nature is seeing distinctions where none exist (ibid, p. 13).

Avidya inheres in jiva and not in Brahman. For if we maintain that nescience inheres in Brahman, then it is Brahman who is bound and Brahman who is released. But this is contradicted by the references in shruti to the great souls of the past who obtained release. For if it were Brahman who was bound and Brahman who was released the attainment of release by any one individual would involve the simultaneous all-round cessation of sansar (ibid, pp. 11, 12). We ought not, therefore, to think of nescience as one entity residing in Brahman, but as many entities, each residing in a specific jiva. To this it can be objected that the jiva cannot exist as the support in which nescience inheres until nescience (inhering in something else) has already created the jiva.

This objection may be turned, however, either by remarking that it is the very nature of maya to perform the unintelligible, or else by pointing to the beginningless nature of jiva and avidya (which latter is not distinguished from maya in this system) which is such that their interaction is cyclic like that of the seed and the sprout, so that we cannot say of either that it came before the other (ibid, p. 10).

There are several other features of Mandana’s theory of avidya which would require notice if our account was to be a complete one, but for our present purposes the above will suffice. One feature of it (and there are also others we have not mentioned) became a commonplace of later Advaita— namely, the doctrine that nescience is indeterminable (anirva- chaniya) as either real or unreal.

The doctrine of indeterminability is found in Shri Shankara’s prose commentaries and in his chief independent work, the Upadesha Sahasri. But it is not there applied to nescience. It is applied to the “ name and form ” from which according to Upanishadic tradition the sensible world evolves, and more specifically to “ name and form ” in their unevolved condition —before they evolve into the plurality of the sensible world. And Shri Shankara does not say of “ name and form ” (the expression should be taken in the singular) that they are “ neither real nor unreal ” but that they are “ neither the same as reality nor different ”.

The term ‘ indeterminable ’ occurs only four times in the Brahma Sutra commentary, and always in this context and in this sense. It occurs in the same context in the prose section of the Upadesha Sahasri and the commentary to the Aitareya Upanishad. In these passages the question at issue is not the reality-status of nescience but the significantly different one of whether the ultimate stuff from which the world is evolved (in this context not nescience but ‘ name and form ’) is the same as Brahman or something different. And Shri Shankara replies that it is indeterminable as either the same as Brahman or different, as foam is indeterminable as either identical with water or different.

It is not absolutely impossible that the term ‘ indeterminable ’ may also have been used by Shri Shankara, as byMandana, in the context of the problem of the reality-status of nescience. It is found in such a context in two well-known works which are usually attributed to him, the Atma Bodha and the Viveka Chudamani, but the fact remains that the earliest known complete formulation of it as a technical doctrine is to be found in Mandana’s Brahma Siddhi.

One result of the adoption of Mandana’s formula by the later writers of Shri Shankara’s school was to make the world a little more solid. When once you have said that nescience and its effects are more real than a sky-flower, it is not so easy to dismiss it as being ‘ as unreal as a sky-flower a formula that is found in both Gaudapada and Shri Shankara.

But if Shri Shankara’s followers in general accepted the doctrine that nescience is neither real nor unreal, they were less hospitable to his theory that it was many and located in the individual jivas. Shri Shankara had so formulated his doctrine that there was scope in it for a tentative world-view according to which there exists an objective world experienced in common by all the jivas that is supported and controlled by Ishvara. Already in the Naishkarmya Siddhi of Shri Shankara’s pupil Sureshvara we can feel an awareness that this valuable moment in his master’s doctrine was threatened by Mandana’s teachings. Sureshvara specifically insists (.Naishkarmya Siddhi III. 1) that it is not jiva but Brahman that is the support or locus of nescience. He meets Mandana’s above-mentioned criticism that on this view Brahman becomes the one afflicted with sansar by a simple denial {Naishkarmya Siddhi, III. 1, introductory commentary). This is possible to a follower of Shri Shankara, according to whom it is consciousness reflected in the mind that is bound and eventually released, while Brahman as pure consciousness stands ever untouched as the witness.

Mandana’s view is subjectivism. Nescience is not one, but many, located in the many jivas. Nothing exists except bare consciousness plus the subjective projections of the various jivas. It is difficult to find a place for Ishvara in such a system. He can be made into a sort of Fichtean Absolute Ego, the jiva’s higher self, of which he is unconscious, projecting situations for him to battle against. But it is not easy to bring such a conception into line with Vedic tradition. It is true that Shri Shankara, as well as Mandana, explains away the creation texts as not proclaiming actual facts, but Shri Shankara makes a place for the liberated man as identified with Ishvara, the witness and controller of the universe and the mediator of the knowledge of Brahman to others. Since for Mandana there is no public external world and the nescience of each man is his private affair—a sort of box that he can destroy but never climb out of—the basis for Shri Shankara’s broad synthesis of religious and metaphysical doctrines is lacking. Sureshvara, however, was solicitous to unify avidya and locate it in Brahman, and on this basis the religious element in Shri Shankara’s teaching can be retained. The conception of Ishvara as the support and controller of the world, as the witness of the intellect and the one by whose grace the nescience of the individual is destroyed, is alluded to in the opening stanza of the Naishkarmya Siddhi, which is described as “an epitome of the teaching of the treatise as a whole ”.

Shri Shankara’s world-view taken as a whole probably demands Sureshvara’s theory, but there are a few individual texts in his writings which at first sight appear to locate nescience in jiva. Sarvajnatma Muni notices these texts and remarks that in the light of Shri Shankara’s doctrine as a whole they should not be taken as an excuse for foisting onto him the doctrine of Mandana, whom he mentions by name (Samkshepa Shariraka, II. 174). Professor Ingalls sees the texts rather as a refusal to locate nescience anywhere, since to do so would make it real. Shri Shankara’s followers, according to this authority, were not in this embarrassment since they had the neat formula for avidya “ neither real nor unreal ”, which Shri Shankara had not.

Be that as it may, the only followers of Shri Shankara who represented nescience as located in jiva and as many were Vachaspati Mishra and his school. Vachaspati, however, distinguished between causal avidya (mulavidya) and secondary avidya (tulavidya). S. N. Das Gupta has maintained that Vachaspati’s mulavidya may be taken as one, and he supports this contention with excellent quotations from the Bhamati. On this basis, the conception of a public universe with Ishvara for controller of it can be retained. On the other hand another good authority, S. S. Suryanarayana Shastri, assures us that in Vachaspati’s view the presence of a common public world was but a ‘ needless complication ’, and that mulavidya was located in jiva and was many just like tulavidya, being no more than the unmanifest reservoir of sanskars of the individual jiva. And he too produces some evidence from Vachaspati’s followers in favour of his view. It may be that Vachaspati did not manage to effect a consistent synthesis between Shri Shankara’s doctrines and Mandana’s, so that two world-views are to be found in the Bhamati side by side.

The main claim of the Bhamati school was that their theory of a plurality of nesciences located in- the jivas could alone explain the possibility of individual release. Probably all Shri Shankara’s other followers maintained in one form or another that this difficulty could be solved if jiva were taken as chit associated with its own reflection in the mind. What is destroyed at release is the residual impressions of the past deeds of the individual jiva, which form a single complex known as his ‘ causal body ’. When the latter is finally burnt up, the reflection disappears for lack of a reflecting medium. With the release of one jiva, the nescience of the others remains intact. Shri Shankara’s immediate pupils Padmapada and Sureshvara did not hold the ‘ reflection theory ’ (pratibimba vada) in any of the whole variety of complicated forms it came to assume later ; but the later doctrines may be said to be in large part the consequence of the fact that they both insisted, against Mandana, on the unity of avidya and its location in Brahman.


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