Panchadasi is a great Vedanta classic of the fourteenth century6 min read

Dr shastri’s translation of “ Panchadasi ” makes available to English readers a great Vedanta classic of the fourteenth century. The author, Vidyaranya, was a famous saint and savant of southern India, who successfully rallied the remnants of Hindu resistance against the destroying wave of Mohammedan conquest which had swept over India. Only after successfully establishing the empire of Vijayanagara as a refuge for the ancient Hindu culture did this religious scholar renounce his ministerial office, honours and wealth, and become a monk. He was then fifty-four. It was as a monk that he wrote his Vedantic works, including Panchadasi.

Vidyaranya is one of the line of brilliant philosopher yogis who take their inspiration from Shri Shankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma- sutras. The doctrine set out in the first chapter of Panchadasi, and amplified in the subsequent chapters, is the same as that propounded in the great works of Shri Shankara’s disciples, in the Sankshepa Shariraka of Sarvajnatman Muni and in many other classics, namely that it is the knowledge of one’s true nature alone which is the means for attaining liberation, and that such knowledge arises directly from the Great Sentences of the scriptures. There are several of these but ultimately they are reducible to two : “ That thou art ” and “ I am Brahman ”.

The Great Sentences, which strike at the root of the duality of our every-day experience, cannot be understood without an intense spirit of enquiry. By enquiry Vidyaranya does not mean a mere theoretical exercise, leading to a theoretical result which may satisfy us intellectually but is in flat contradiction to experience. Our present assumptions of the reality of the world and the mind and ego are based not on reason but on unconscious habit formed over a long period of time, and they are not to be upset by the reasoning of an afternoon.

Our present view of the world and of ourselves is upheld by the two pillars of dullness and passion, and until these pillars are weakened by discipline and prolonged meditation mere reasoning will not be of much avail. It is also true of course that we invent reasons to support our present assumptions, and in attacking this structure of pseudoreasoning inquiry on intellectual lines is essential.

The first five chapters of Panchadasi are concerned with such inquiry. In the second chapter Vidyaranya takes the scientific analysis of the world current in his day, and shows how the Self is to be distinguished from nature. Obviously the scientific analysis of to-day differs considerably, but the reasoning still holds by which the Self is distinguished from the fundamental elements or particles postulated as the basis of the objective world. In the third chapter, the individuality of man is similarly analysed, and the Self distinguished from body, vitality, mind, intellect and finally from the unconscious reservoir of latent impressions. In the fourth chapter the Self is distinguished from all duality whatever. This leads to the short fifth chapter, in which the Great Sentences are briefly set out.

The second five chapters discuss the nature of consciousness in man, and describe what is technically called the “ knot of the heart ”. In man a knot has been forged between the conscious and the unconscious ; it is the identification of his limited ego-consciousness with the infinite Self. The teacher explains this crucial point in great detail and carefully examines the various possible theories.  Chapter Seven is said to be the philosophical heart of Panchadasi.

The last five chapters are on Bliss. “ As a man carrying a burden on his head feels relief when he throws down his load, so does the yogi when he attains freedom.” Chapters Eleven and Twelve explain the methods of Yoga meditation by which the mind is brought to absolute tranquillity, and the distinction of meditator, meditation and object of meditation vanishes. Then the veil of illusion becomes very thin, the spearpoint of inquiry pierces through, and the truth of the Great Sentences is realized. The knot of the heart is cut, all doubts are resolved, and he is freed from the bondage of all past actions. “ The illumined man, knowing Him, conquers death ; there is no other path than this. When a man has known the Self, all his bonds are cut asunder and all his griefs end.”

Vidyaranya says that some are attracted to the path of meditation, which begins with purification of the mind by right action and devotion to Brahman conceived as endowed with attributes, such as truth and infinity. This leads to meditation on Brahman as beyond all attributes. The meditation practice must be pursued with determination and force ; warding off contrary thoughts, the yogi must meditate without intermission under all conditions. Just as a shopkeeper, who has found a jewel and hidden it in a corner of his shop, has the thought of it at the back of his mind even when carrying on his ordinary business, and dreams of it at night, so the yogi must have the meditation in his mind during his activities of the day, and even in his dreams. In the end the meditation will be habitual, and then the mind becomes serene and radiant. But Vidyaranya stresses that there must also be a spirit of enquiry, because it is only through enquiry into the meaning of the Great Sentences that the bondage of duality is broken for ever. For the expert in meditation, however, such -enquiry is very easy.

Those on the other hand who are attracted by the philosophy are warned that mere acquaintance with the texts of Vedanta and the philosophical arguments gives only second-hand knowledge. Unless inertia and passion are removed from the deeper layers of the mind by discipline and meditation, the enquiry will be only theoretical, or rather there will be no real enquiry at all. It is one thing to know in theory, and another to be able to accept in practice. There are fanatic nationalists who pretend to study world history in order to prove that their own nation is uniquely great, wise and benevolent ; but though they see the facts they are unable to accept them, because that would mean abandoning their convictions, derived not from reason but from passion and inertia. Vidyaranya’s enquiry is not like this, in that it requires the courage to see the upsetting of our most fundamental assumptions. It leads, like the path of meditation, to the state of one-pointed contemplation on the meaning of the Great Sentences. To our empirical consciousness, the Great Sentence “ I am Brahman ” seems flatly opposed to common sense, just as to a man dreaming of a storm at sea the sentence “You are in bed asleep ; this whole storm is your creation ” is flatly opposed to his experience of the moment.

But when the Great Sentence is realized not theoretically but in actual experience, then the yogi awakes, the knot of the heart is cut, and all sufferings end for ever. Then, he knows that he has achieved all that was to be achieved and done all that was to be done, and rests in complete peace in the bliss of Brahman. Accepting the shadowy limitations of the body and mind as if in sport, conscious only of immortality and bliss, he wanders the earth for the remainder of the natural term of life absolutely free and untroubled, his actions proceeding from him spontaneously and directed solely towards the welfare of all living beings. It is the very nature of these illumined ones, says Shri Shankara, to lead the suffering to liberation.