The Shankara commentary on the Chapter of the Self

In a note in his Shoki Vedānta Tetsugaku-shi (History of Early Vedanta Philosophy), Professor Nakamura remarks that the commentary on the Adhyatma-patala attributed to Śaṅkara is in his style, quoting only the older Upanishads, and the thought ds consonant with his authentic works; he concludes that it is either by Śaṅkara himself or by some thinker of similar ideas who lived about the same time.

Professor Sengaku Mayeda of the University of Tōkyō has made a special study of the authenticity of important works attributed to Śaṅkara (defined as the author of the Brahma-sūtra commentary); he has not published a separate analysis of this Adhyātma-patala commentary, but in his Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Śaṅkara, where he summarizes his con¬clusions, he states that it is a genuine work.

In the monumental work on the history of the Dharma-Śastra Kane notes in passing that in style and content it is probably a work of Śaṅkara.

The quotations from authority, even in this very short work, show a pattern characteristic of Śaṅkara, with the old and middle Upanishads Bṛihādaraṇyaka , Chāndogya, Muṇḍaka, Kāṭhaka and Taittirīya well to the fore; and of smritis the most prominent place given to Mahābharata, especially Mokshadharma, Anugītā and the Bhagavad Gītā itself. Manu, again characteristically, has several mentions.

All these quotations can be found in one or more of Śaṅkara’s commentaries, and some familiar ones occur often in the same pairings; for example two well-known texts, Bṛihad. III.7.23 ‘there is no other seer but this’ and Chānd. VI.8.7 ‘thou art that’, come side by side in the commentary on sūtra 4 here and also paired under Brahma-sūtra II.3.30.

But there are more significant parallels, especially with the Gītā commentary, in the presentation of not particularly common texts. The following six quotations appear in close proximity at the end of the Adhyātma-paṭala commentary introduction (where quotation is partial, the words actually quoted are italicized).

1. Renunciation alone excelled these, the lower austerities (Māhānar. 78.12) (tāni vā etānyavāṛani tapāmsi, nyāsa evātyarecayat); (14 words further on) . . . renunciation alone excelled.

2. Not by action, not by offspring, not by wealth, (but) by giving up some attained immortality (Mahānār. 12.14; Kaivalya 2) (na karmaṇā na prajayā dhanena tyāgenaike amṛitatvam ānaśuḥ).

3. There are two well-trodden paths, the first being the path of action and the other being renunciation. Of the two it is renunciation which is the higher (Taitt.X.62.12) (dvau panthānāvanunishkrāntatau karmapathaścaivam purastāt saṃnyāsaśca, tayoḥ saṃnyāsa evātirecayati); (paraphrased in Mahābh.XII.233.6).

4. Give up duty and its opposite, both right and wrong give up; having given up both right and wrong, give up that by which you give them up (Mahābh. XII. 229.40)

(tyaja dharmam adharmaṃ ca ubhe satyānṛite tyaja ubhe satyānṛite tyaktvā yena tyajasi tat tyaja).

5. having known, let him practise actionlessness (unidentified smriti) (jñātvā, naishkarmyam acaret) (as quoted in Aitareya comm, intro.) or: abhayam sarvabhūtebhyo dattvā naishkarmyam acaret (Mahābh. XIV.46.18) (as quoted in Gītā III.4 comm.).

6. By action a person is bound and by knowledge he is released: therefore the sages who see the supreme do no action (Mahābh. XII.233.7) (karmaṇā badhyate jantu vidyaya ca vimucyante tāsmad karma na kurvanti, yatayaḥ paradarśinaḥ).

These texts appear in juxtaposition in a number of other places in the commentaries of Śaṅkara:

Gītā, III intro1246
XVIII.55 14
Bṛihad. IV.5.1223
Aitareya intro25
Isa 2 (Mahābh. XII.233.6)13

Again, at the beginning of the introduction to the Adhyātma- patala, there are two quotations side by side from the Law-book itself:

(a) Having given up truth and untruth, pleasure and pain, the Vedas and this world, let him seek the Self (2.21.13) (satyānṛite sukhaduhkhe Vedān imam lokam amuñca parityajyā ’tmānam anvicchet).

(b) Men of the several castes and orders, each devoted to his respective duties, reap the fruits of their actions after death (varṇā asramāśca svakarme nishṭhāh pretya karmaphalam anubhūya) (2.2.3, also Gautama XI.29: quoted as from Gautama).

The commentary on Gītā XVIII.55 quotes (a), and (b) is quoted in the commentary to XVIII 44 and 66, as from smriti in both cases.

These juxtapositions of texts which are not frequently cited may be an indication – almost like finger-prints – that the works in which they appear are by the same hand. In particular it may be that the Gītā commentary and the Adhyātma-patala commentary were written about the same time, when the texts were in the mind of the writer in these pairings.

There are a number of other connections with the Gītā commentary as regards quotations; for example the Rig Veda quotation which appears here under sūtra 10, yena dyaurugrā pṛithivī ca drīhlā, occurs also in the commentary to Gītā XV. 13.

It is also worth noting that the unidentified quotation from sruti appearing under sūtra 4, ākāśavat sarvagataśca nityaḥ, is not from some late Upanishad but appears in Śaṅkara’s commentary on
Brahma-sūtra III.2.37; it is also, incidentally, quoted by Madhusūdana Sarasvatī in his commentary on Gītā IV.6.

Śaṅkara frequently quotes and refers to this Chapter of the Self in other works. However, even when quoting one of the verses, which he himself says are Upanishadic, he attributes them to smriti and not to śruti, inasmuch as the source was no longer known in his time. Sūtra 2 he quotes in his commentary to Brahma-sūtra 1.1.17: ātmalābhān na param vidyate. His independent work called the Thousand Teachings has in the verse part 16.44: ātmalābhaḥ paro lābha iti śāstropapattayaḥ.

In verses 4 and 5 of Ch. 17 of the same he has: ātmalābhāt para nānyo lābhaḥ kaścana vidyate; ātmalābhaḥ paraḥ prokto. In the commentary on Mund. III.2.5 it is: sarvalābhāt parama ātmalābhaḥ.

In the first verse of metrical part of the Thousand Teachings appears the unusual compound guhāśaya ‘lying in the cave’, which occurs indeed in Muṇḍaka but applied to prāṇas, whereas in the Chapter of the Self it is Ātman. In the prose section (1.38) Śaṅkara quotes the sūtra explicitly – pūḥ prāṇinaḥ guhāśayasya.

One of the tests for texts ascribed to Śaṅkara is the use of terms expressing Ignorance in his technical sense. In this Chapter of the Self, it is ajñāna which is the seed of doshas (sarvadosha- bīja-bhūtam-ajñānam – sūtra 3) which cause samsāra, and elsewhere avidya is only one of these. (The Gītā commentary has compounds like avidyādidoshaih, IX. 8 and avidyādidoshavattva, XIII. 2). But in the introduction, avidyā is the cause of saṃsāra. And under sūtras 10 and 11, he describes doshas as born of mithyā-pratyaya (mithyāpratyayabhava), preceded by it (mithyāpratyayapūrvaka), accompanied by it (mithyāpratyaya- sacivat), and in the introduction, accompanied by mithyā-jñāna (samithyājñāna). Perhaps the idea is similar to that in the yoga sūtra, where avidya is the first from which the other doshas spring, being pervaded by it, though there the term is kleśa (following the sūtra), as however also in the Gītā commentary on VI.27 (mohādi-kleśa). But avidya is not among the doshas listed in sūtra 13: moha does appear, but Śaṅkara does not take the opportunity of glossing it as avidyā.

In general in the Chapter of the Self, vidyā, brahmavidyā, and jñāna are synonymous as the means to destroy avidya or ajñāna, and it can be supposed that these two last, and mithyā- jñāna
(and mithyā-pratyaya as in the Brahma-sūtra commentary) are the same, as for Śaṅkara in the Gītā commentary (though not for his followers, for whom avidyā is not mithyā- jñāna but the cause of it).

In doctrine, the Chapter of the Self is close to one main teaching of Śaṅkara’s Gītā commentary, though not identical with it. This is, that liberation is not necessarily from Knowledge alone, but from devotion-to-Knowledge (jñāna-nishṭhā) together with renunciation of all works (introduction to Gītā: sarvakar- masaṃnyāsa-purvakād atma-jñāna-nishṭhā-rūpād dharmād). In this system, jñāna-prāpti may merely qualify the aspirant for jñāna-nishṭhā which consists in devotion to that Knowledge, spontaneously entailing saṃnyāsa. The process of jñāna-nishṭhā is described, according to Śaṅkara, in a number of places in the Gītā: II.54-72, V. 17-26, all Ch. VI, XII. 13-20, XIII.7-18,

XIV. 23-5, XVIII.51-5. The Chapter of the Self commentary refers specifically to II.59, and to the passage of chapter XIV. The descriptions are mostly in negative terms, but he reads into all of them a positive injunction to practise samādhi on Self or the Lord. The whole tenor of the commentary, however, is that the – apparently – enjoined seclusion, renunciation, and even meditation, are in practice natural results of the Knowledge which he already has the injunction to meditate on Self is in reality only restrictive, to rule out distractions; free from distractions, meditation on Self follows naturally. The doctrine is summed up in many places; for instance II.69 says that when they have realized the Self (quoting V.17 – tadbuddhayas tadātmanas), their duty (adhikāra) consists in renunciation of all action and devotion to Knowledge (jñāna-nishṭhā). And there is no need of a specific injunction to meditate on Atman, for the reason that Atman is one’s own very Self. Hence it is natural to do so.

That the jñāna with which jñāna-nishṭhā begins is not merely theoretical is clear from the many instances where it is glossed as samyag-darśana or paramārthadarśana (e.g. IV.41; V.6, 8, 9, 13, 26; IX.22; XII.5, 12 etc.).

In the Gītā commentary, however, Śaṅkara allows certain exceptions to the rule that jñāna-nishṭhā must entail saṃnyāsa; to set an example to the world, to protect the people, to avoid the censure of the ‘orthodox’ (śishta – presumably followers of Manu who held that the stages of life must be gone through in succession) or simply ‘something preventing it’ (IV. 19). In the commentary to IV.2, several kings who wrere practising jñāna- nishṭhā are given as examples. In this respect the Chapter of the Self commentary follows the principle that there may be exceptions to the inevitability of saṃnyāsa.

Śaṅkara states explicitly, in his commentary on Gītā III. 16, that the teaching is based on Bṛihad. III.5.1, and it may be significant that his quotation is in fact a paraphrase of it, bringing out his doctrine:

The Brahmins, having known this the Self and free from illusory knowledge (mithyā-jñāna), awakening from all desires for sons, etc. cherished inevitably by those still under illusion, lead a wandering life begging for necessities. They have nothing else to do than resort to devotion to Self-knowledge (ātmajñānanishṭhā).

The word ‘kārya’ (something to do) implies action.

In the commentary on this passage in the original Upanishad, he uses two of the key words of the Chapter of the Self: yogī and paṇḍita. He sums up its doctrine here:

What a Brahman-Knower should do is to eliminate all ideas of the non-Self; doing this he accomplishes his task and becomes a yogī. After having known fully the panditahood which is Self-knowledge, and the strength which is elimination of ideas of the non-Self, he knows about meditation. . . . He becomes a Brahman-Knower … his status as a Brahman-Knower is literally true.

The same doctrine of Knowledge being reinforced, or rather protected from disturbance of remaining prārabdhakarma, by yogas like inner and outer control, giving up, and samādhi practice, is found in the commentaries on Brahma-sūtra III.4.20, Muṇḍaka III.2.6, and the Thousand Teachings prose part I.4. In this last, three recommendations are made for ‘making firm’ the Knowledge of a paramahaṃsa renunciate: Angerlessness and the other (yogas of the Chapter of the Self), ahiṁsā and the other yama and niyama qualifications (of the yoga-sūtra), and humility and the other (qualities of Gītā XIII.7-11). But these practices (though they may be referred to as karma) are not something alien to Knowledge – they are ‘grounding in Brahman’ as explained in the comments to Brahma-sūtra III.4.20.

The doctrine of the Chapter of the Self is summed up in a sentence in the third chapter of the prose part of the Thousand Teachings: ‘A Knower (vidvān) who is tormented by the objects perceived, should practise parisaṅkhyāna meditation.’

This meditation begins with separation of Self, which is by nature Seeing, from all objects, as in the system of Patañjali, but it ends with a declaration of non-duality, ‘Nothing exists except Ātman’. This takes it further than the prasaṇkhyāna meditation of the yoga-sūtra, which stops at Isolation and does not deny duality.

The path of jñāna-nishṭhā is simply Knowledge. In the debate in the Gītā commentary on XVIII.55 an objector points out that a thing is known by knowledge, and to say it is known by devotion-to-knowledge (jñāna-nishṭhā) is meaningless; the reply is, that devotion-to-knowledge merely means that the knowedge is freed from obstacles by practice of humility, one- pointed meditation and the others listed in XIII. 7-11.

A special and valuable point in the presentation in the Chapter of the Self is, that it reconciles the apparent contradiction that though knowledge alone is to be the means of liberation, at the same time yogas are enjoined. It is explained that some Knowers attain Brahman fully at once, while in others the clarity of Knowledge is obscured by doshas thrown up by karma-already-in-operation. The yogas are intended for the latter.

In the same way, the Thousand Teachings metrical part,IV.3 states that karma-already-in-operation overpowers Brahman-Knowledge, but only for a time, till the Brahman-Knowledge is as firm as the ordinary knowledge of the body as the self.

If this commentary is authentic, as seems very probable, it is an important guide to Śaṅkara’s thought. Though he is following a text, it is not one of those on which he might have felt more or less obliged to comment (more likely might have been some section of Manu, for whom he had such reverence); he must have chosen it because it expressed his own ideas. Looking at the sūtras, he could easily have interpreted ‘having thrown off the doshas’ as practice of yogas only before Knowledge, with Peace following Knowledge immediately in all cases.

But his commentary explains at length that yoga practice leads up to Knowledge, and then (in some cases, where necessary) also follows it, before liberation is attained. In this he follows his Gītā doctrine, in which samādhi-practice is one of the elements of karma-yoga leading up to Knowledge (II.39), is the immediate means to Knowledge (VI. intro.) and is jñāna-nishṭhā practised after the rise of Knowledge (XVIII.52).

There are couple of minor points where comparisons can be made with other works of Śaṅkara. Under sūtras 7 and 10, he refers to the projection in order of the five elements, from Space to Earth, and their dissolution into each other in reverse order. The text does not require him to introduce the doctrine, and he does it voluntarily as he does in the first chapter of the prose part of the Thousand Teachings. Professor Mayeda has published a study of Śaṅkara’s cosmology, and he comments in a letter,

As far as I can see, the author’s idea in these two sūtras does not show any essential difference from that of the author of the Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya. In neither case is the theory of paṅcīkaraṇa explicitly set out, but the author seems to hold a kind of paṅcīkaraṇa, accepting the five gross elements. This fact cannot be a strong evidence of Śaṅkara’s authorship of the Vivaraṇa, but it may be one of the pointers to it as you remark.

I am grateful to Professor Mayeda for this opinion, which must carry great weight. I should also say how much I have relied upon his studies on the authenticity of the Śaṅkara commentaries on the Gītā, the Thousand Teachings, the Kenopanishad and Māndūkya Kārikas, and his analysis of Jñāna and Karman as means to moksha.

The Chapter of the Self commentary agrees in general with the cycle of saṃsāra set out in the Thousand Teachings, especially verses 3 and 4 of the first chapter of the metrical part, but there is an interesting difference. In the Thousand Teachings, the cycle is:

1 karmas as the result of actions in previous lives

2 connection with a body

3 experience of pleasure and pain

4 passion and aversion (which are doshas, as in verse 7)

5 action (kriyā) (of)

6 dharma and a-dharma

7 connection with a body again as as a result

But the Chapter of the Self makes the karmas from previous lives bring up doshas (i.e. 4) before the experience of pleasure and pain (3). The reason given is that there cannot be experience of pleasure and pain unless there is already some desire or aversion in the experiencer.

As to the commentary on the yoga-sūtras (Yogasūtra- bhāṣyavivaraṇa) from which I have quoted, this was published (from a single manuscript) in the Madras Oriental Series only in 1952; it is too early to say that it must be by Śaṅkara, but it is likely to be genuine. The first study was made by Dr Paul Hacker of Munster, Germany, a great authority on Śaṅkara, who applied linguistic and ideological tests devised by himself and now widely accepted, and concluded that it is indeed by Śaṅkara. He proposed that Śaṅkara was first a yogīn and later became an advaitin, perhaps from studying the Om doctrine of the Māndūkya Upaniṣad and the kārikas, on it.

Professor Sengaku Mayeda of Tōkyō University follows this view in his article on Śaṅkara in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; he has also discovered that a theory of knowledge held by Śaṅkara, though not by his pupils and followers, is supported by the author of the Yoga-sūtra-Vivaraṇa.

Dr Hajime Nakamura has been over a major portion of this text with me, inspecting my translation and rendering a good bit into a Japanese translation; he has published two articles on it (in Japanese). His tentative conclusions are that it is by an author, who might well be Śaṅkara, earlier than Vācaspati Miśra, author of the great Tattvavaiśaradī commentary on the same text. But he believes that it would not be necessary to take it that Śaṅkara, if the author, must have rejected yoga doctrine before becoming an advaitin; he points out numerous passages in this text where already an advaitic interpretation is given to yoga terms and even basic ideas. He remarks that Westerners tend to think ‘in or out’, and sometimes fail to understand the Eastern mind. Śaṅkara in his great commentaries does regard mere yoga practice as insufficient for full release; it must be concentrated on the advaita texts. But he regards the yoga scripture as authoritative on meditation practice, which is the immediate antecedent to knowledge.

It might be pointed out in support of this that Madhusūdana Sarasvatl, a great pillar of advaita in later times, devoted a substantial portion of his commentary on the Gītā to explanation of the yoga sūtras. He felt no contradiction in his attitude.

The Yoga-sūtra-Vivaraṇa is forcefully and originally written. It mentions some interesting ideas, for instance a view that the stars move in response to some force like magnetism. The longest commentary on a single sūtra is that on I.25 mainly concerned with giving proofs of the existence of God, defined furthermore in accordance with the Brahma-sūtra, as projector, upholder and withdrawer of the universe.

The author hardly comments on the sūtras of book III which give accounts of supernormal cognitions and powers. He remarks, following Patañjali and Vyāsa, that some fragmentary manifestation of such things is likely in the case of a yogī who practises seriously; he should therefore simply be warned about what may happen.

Śaṅkara certainly believed that such things occur; in his Brahmasūtra commentary he remarks tartly that they are a fact which cannot be set aside by mere vehement denial. He sometimes cites them as an example in purely philosophical discussion: for instance when in his Bṛihādaraṇyaka commentary he wishes to show how one and the same effect may be produced by various and different causes, he chooses perception of the form of an object. This can arise in those like men who see in the daytime, or again in nocturnal animals without the light needed by men, or again in yogīs who do not need either light or a sense-organ, but see with the mind alone.

The quotations from sacred authority in the Yoga-sūtra- Vivaraṇa follow the normal Śaṅkara pattern: of sruti, the Bṛihādaraṇyaka Upaniṣad is highest, and the Gītā from among smriti sources. The Gītā is also quoted without overt reference – ‘as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as the embryo in the womb’ (so is knowledge covered).

A comparative study of the commentary on the yoga sūtras and on the Gītā might be fruitful. ‘Yoga is samādhi,’ says the yoga commentary at the beginning, and in the Gītā commentary more than fifty times the word ‘yoga’ and its adjectival form are glossed as ‘samādhi’, ‘samādhāna’, or their adjectival form. In one of the yoga sūtras on God (I.26) Śaṅkara quotes a verse of the Gītā (XI.55), which in his Gītā commentary he says sums up the essential teaching of the whole Gītā:

He whose work is for me, who seeks me alone,
Devoted to me, free from attachment,
Without hatred for any being,
He comes to me, O Pāṇḍava.

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