Sureshvara was a pupil of Shri Shankara, the classical guide to the Upanishads in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. He is chiefly famous for three works: a relatively short treatise called Naishkarmya Siddhi , a sub-commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad of comparable length, and an extremely voluminous sub-commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the last being his main work.
Sureshvara tends to identify reasoning with what is called in Sanskrit anvaya and vyatireka. In anvaya and vyatireka, you reflect over your experiences and note what things are constant or are constantly connected, and what things are impermanent or not constantly connected. For Sureshvara, what is constant in the absolute sense is the Self as consciousness or Witness. All else is subject to change; and this is already a proof that the only real element in all our experience is the inmost Witness.
The Witness is not the mind, but the witness of the mind and the light of consciousness that illumines it. It is the function of anvaya and vyatireka reasoning to convince us that in our true nature we are not the mind, let alone the body, but the conscious Witness illumining the mind and its successive states.
Reasoning is for most people a necessary prelude to realization of the truth through the Upanishadic texts, for without it they could not understand what the texts meant. But for Sureshvara, reason, by its very nature, cannot yield knowledge of the supreme Self. It can tell you that it exists, and can tell you important preliminary things you need to know about it. But it cannot present you with knowledge of the Self, cannot enable you to see it, as the phrase went, ‘like a plum held in the palm of the hand’. Thus Sureshvara says: “We see that the empirical knower, his knowledge and its objects, are things that come and go in succession during the successive experiences of waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep.
The Witness, therefore, of their coming and going, is the Self, which does not participate in the coming and going, as the sun is the cause of day and night on earth while being itself free from alternations like day and night.” Here an objector is made to say:* “If this be so, then the pure consciousness which neither rises nor sets, and which is taught by the Vedic texts, is accessible to inference, and the Vedic texts teaching it are redundant.” Sureshvara replies that this is not so, because inference never yields direct knowledge of anything. For example, if by the use of anvaya and vyatireka reasoning in the past, we have established the universal law, ‘Wherever there is smoke there is fire,’ then if we happen to see smoke on a hill we can know, by inference, ‘There is a fire on this hill’. But we have no concrete image of the fire, as we would if we could perceive it. We merely know that it exists, and this does not amount to knowing it. The philosophers’ proofs of the existence of God, if found faultless, might convince us of the existence of God. And this conviction is worth having. But it is not at all the same thing as that direct knowledge of God of which the mystics speak. The need for inference is a sign of not knowing what is being inferred; you do not need to infer the presence of an elephant from its footprints if you can see it standing before you on the path.
The Witness within us of all our experiences from childhood to old age, remains the same, while nothing else does-neither our body, nor our mind, nor external objects – including even the Pyramids. We become aware of this through reasoning, says Sureshvara, and the more we reason about it the more intensely we become aware of it. What we have reasoned to be not-self we can reject as not-self. But simply to have understood that everything apart from the Witnessing consciousness is not-self – is not the same as our own true Self – is not yet enough to give us knowledge of our own true Self in all its infinitude. All distinctions we make, such as that between Self and not-self, themselves belong to the realm of the mind. The mind, however, cannot operate except in terms of 7 think’ or 7 know’ or I feel’. In other words, the mind cannot operate unless it is identified with the Self, or rather, what is more important for our present purposes, unless the Self is identified with it. But any such identification rests on ignorance of the true nature of the Self, infinite, the same in all beings. As long as we are reasoning about the Self and the not-self, therefore, we do not and cannot know the Self, as we have to be ignorant of its true nature as infinite in order to identify it with the mind and do reasoning. Sureshvara suggests that the highest function of reason is to show that the Self as pure subject is different from all else, but as reasoning by its very nature cannot reveal the Self, there is the danger that it may end by leading us to the conclusion that no such entity as a Self exists. Sureshvara points to the Buddhists, who reached this position because they used reason skilfully but did not allow themselves to be guided by the Veda and the Upanishads; while we in the West might point to David Hume.
Reason, therefore, can at best clear the way for the revaluation to be effected by the Teacher and the Upanishadic texts. Reason can make the highest texts of the Upanishads sound possible, even though from the standpoint of common sense they at first seem impossible. “It makes no sense to say that the world is unreal,” says a lady now teaching Indian philosophy at a London university. Shri Shankara and Sureshvara would both have heartily agreed. Both say that no individual has the right to make such a claim on his own account unless he is directly aware of the sole reality of the one Self and the unreality of the world – unless of course, he was only claiming to be giving voice to a traditional teaching. But one of the functions of reason, according to Sureshvara, was to make it seem possible that the Upanishadic texts that implied the unreality of the world might be true. It is part of the doctrine of Advaita that the Self in its true universal nature is already immediately evident to us, because it is the light of consciousness within, but we have hypnotized ourselves into a condition where we cannot believe it, and once someone fails to know something, he imagines wrong things in its place, as a person who half glimpses a rope in the dark may imagine a snake. The case was illustrated by a later follower of Sureshvara, Sarvajnatma Muni, by the homely example of the tale of Barcchu. In ancient India it was almost certain death to disobey the word of a king. A king sent his minister Barcchu off on an errand to a distant foreign land. Barcchu hastened back home to collect his things, when he found, to his distress, that his wife had just died. The funeral ceremonies took precedence of everything, so he had to stay behind a day or two, and did not inform the king. The next day the king was out with his courtiers when one of them said, “Why, there’s Barcchu”. The king looked, but for a moment he was unable to see Barcchu, not because his eyes were not focussed on him, but because he literally could not believe his eyes. It is because we are in this state with regard to the Self, says Sarvajnatma Muni, that we need the use of reason to make us see how it is possible that the Upanishadic texts could be right after all.
There are some examples of the use of reason in the work called Realization of the Absolute with the limited aim of removing this or that characteristic commonsense belief that makes it impossible for us to accept the Upanishadic teaching. For example, we tend to identify the Self with the body in the course of practical life. Sureshvara argues:
“Further, the wise know that the body is not the Self, because, like a pot, it is an object to those very sense-organs which perceive external objects, while in dream the continuity of the body- consciousness is broken.”
There is more than one argument here to show that the body cannot be the Self. It is clear that from the point of view of the Witnessing-consciousness within us, the sense-organs are themselves objects. Sight, hearing, the sense of touch and so on, are known from within. Yet sight, sense of touch, hearing, etc., which are already objects, take the body for their object. They hear it fall, feel it in pain when part of it is squashed, see it when they look down at their toes. So the Self as pure consciousness and Witness is at a double remove from the body. It knows the sense-organs as objects and is therefore different from them. And the sense-organs themselves know the body as an object. The second argument is that if the body were real and identical with the Self, if the Self were ever aware of it, it would always be aware of it. But the fact is that it is only aware of it in the waking state, and this awareness is broken by periods when either one is not aware of any body at all, as in dreamless sleep, or one is aware of a different body, as in dream. Another argument pressed by Sureshvara is that one and the same entity cannot be the agent and the object of the same act: if the Self as the Witnessing-consciousness, though not strictly an agent, witnesses the body as its object, it cannot be identical with it.
Thus reason can show us on the basis of our own experience that our true Self, the Witnessing consciousness in us, cannot be the body. But it cannot be the mind either, or rather the ego-sense, which in the Realization of the Absolute is often identified with the mind. If the ego-sense were really a property of the true Self and we were aware of it in the waking state, it would not lapse in the state of dreamless sleep.
Reasoning, therefore, is enough to show us the difference between the Self and the body and between the Self and the mind – in short, between the Self and the not-self. But if there is a difference between the Self and the not-self, will not this mean that we have two principles, Self and not-self? No. The Upanishads deny the reality of the not-self. They say that the one Self or Absolute is alone real, and that it has no second thing over against it, and no differentiation or finite characteristics within it. And reason seems to agree. It is hard to explain the not-self, says Sureshvara, whether it is taken as essentially identical with or different from the Self, as: “A totally contrary property never comes to inhere in a substance. Coolness does not insinuate itself into a blazing fire fanned by the wind. And how can it exist outside the Self when the Self is infinite?” So, to explain it, we can only appeal to the remarkable phenomenon of illusions. Suppose you take a clay pot and smash it with a club. What the memory will record is, “There was a clay pot, but there is not one now”, and possibly you will see the fragments of clay scattered about. But suppose you see the proverbial snake in a rope in poor light, and then someone brings a light and you see the rope. Nothing will have been destroyed or changed in any way in the object. But you will have the conviction, not “There was a snake but there is not one now”, but, “There is no snake and there never was one; there was only the rope”. So Sureshvara says: “It is impossible to establish the existence of any real entity other than the Self, whether we take such entity to be essentially identical with the Self or essentially different.”
A detailed explanation of the how and the why of the universe of duality was not the ambition of Vedanta philosophers of Sureshvara’s day. We do not enquire into the unreal for the sake of understanding the unreal as such, but only with a view to the better understanding of the real. If the Self is one and infinite, as the Upanishads say, then in this, that or the other way, the various phenomena of the universe of plurality must be the result of ignorance of the Self. Ignorance of the Self is the pre-condition for illusory manifestations, as ignorance of the snake is the precondition for the illusory manifestation of the rope.
Does the world fade away completely for the person who gains enlightenment or liberation in life? Sureshvara says it does not. The images of the world come up as before during the natural term of the body in which he was born, but he is no longer deluded into thinking they are real. Such a person has no goals to pursue, no path to tread, no duties to perform. Sureshvara asks: “What further remains to be done for him who has once burnt up in the curling flames of spiritual knowledge that delusion, together with its effects, whose destruction is the real purpose of our lives?” You may explain his behaviour, says Sureshvara, if you wish, by comparing it to a kind of small shuddering that a person might undergo, on beholding a rope that he had formerly mistaken for a terrible snake. He is in no way shaken from his conviction that it is only a rope, and yet he behaves momentarily in terms of the previous illusory snake. So that unimaginable being, the enlightened Teacher, the Acharya, walks on through life, appearing outwardly to be the same as anyone else, yet inwardly anchored to his realization of his own true nature as the Self present within all. Though he has no rule to follow, there is no question of his indulging in any form of vice, as the sole cause of vice is ignorance of the Self, and he is abundantly aware of the Self. As for the humanitarian virtues, they flow naturally from such a person, automatically and without stint, because enlightenment cannot be attained without the generation of pure and holy sanskaras (mental tendencies). Sureshvara says: “In the case of one who has achieved enlightenment, virtues like non-enmity persist naturally and without effort. They are no longer practised as a means to any end.