pralapati tattvam param avadhutah.
The man free and pure and lost in the Same speaks not about truth; he merely prattles about it. The Avadhuta Gita 7.15cd
THERE ARE MEN who read a lot but do not turn into scholars because they do not read for the sake of systematic research and within the parameters of a methodology but in the hope, ultimately vain and futile, of finding some meaning and purpose in life. Their reading is often extensive, almost always profound and concentrated, but not systematic and objective enough to satisfy the norms set up by the great seats of learning and research. Such men think long and deeply but do not turn into thinkers because they think in pain and in anguish, think as much with their blood, their breath, their pulse as with their brains. Their thinking tells visibly upon their health and the working of their minds; its effect can be seen in their nervousness, in their indecisiveness, in their embarrassing clumsiness. They do not turn into thinkers because they do not think in what are called precise and rigorous terms and do not, cannot, look at every aspect of their thought as a systematic thinker would do. They are more anxious to see truth, to feel it and live it than to talk about it in coherent and precisely communicative terms. Such men also fail to be pious people because they find it difficult to observe the accepted laws of piety, or to be civilised because they do not always live up to the norms of civilisation. Nor can they pray with fervent devotion as men of faith do because their souls often remain amassed and frozen within themselves. They are, in one word unhappy souls that can never come to be successful in life, in thought, in cultural pursuits. To fail in every sphere is their destiny and the promise of their redemption.
For such persons modern civilisation has found an 'infallible cure'. It keeps the doors of its well-equipped and efficient hospitals wide open to restore their normalcy, their averageness and their usefulness. But if these unhappy souls choose to reject this invitation to a happy mediocrity and come to live with their despair and prefer their agony to the 'normal' happiness of 'normal' men, their tragedy may well turn into opportunity. The Upanisads, the Bhagavadgita, the Brahma-sutras - the Prasthanatrayi - were composed for such souls only, men who would rather live in hell than exchange if for the 'reality principle' of the consumer and the doer. And Sankara, too, wrote his commentaries for such men only and not for disinterested theorists and scholars. Witness what he says about the qualifications of the man eligible to study the Brahmasutras and his bhasya on them, qualifications which modern students of Sankara have made it a point to ignore. The qualifications are: discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal; loss of any concern for and interest in what ensues from one's acts, holy or secular, in this life or in the life to come; self-restraint, tranquility of mind, power of endurance, satisfaction with what falls one's way for the sustenance of the body, and, lastly, longing for liberation from birth and death. It was seriously maintained that he who did not satisfy these conditions could not become a Veda-vit, a knower of the Vedas. Obviously, 'knowledge' in this context means something quite different from what we ordinarily understand by the term. But those who study Sankara as a mere philosopher will not pay attention to the eligibility conditions he lays down and will not understand what he really means by the term 'Veda-vit'.
A modern student of Sankara may well wonder why this thinker, one of the very greatest in history, should devote the bulk of his writings to the interpretation of the Upanisadic texts and not toward the establishment of his own position. In fact, he uses his great dialectical powers for the refutation of what may broadly be called 'philosophical positions', and not for 'the establishment of truth'. It is not the privilege of thought, declares Sankara, to lead man to truth; it can only make him a knower of the Vedas. Hence the pains he takes to explain the Upanisadic texts for us. Once we truly become 'the knowers of the Vedas', the Vedic statements will themselves get transformed into truth and with their transformation into truth, the knower of the Vedas too will become reality itself, will turn into sat-purusa, the Real Man.
And who indeed is the knower of the Vedas? Not, certainly, the modern scholar of the Vedas. Nor, for that matter, the great traditional interpreters of Sankara men like Vacaspati Misra and his successors who contributed so much to 'convert' Sankara into a philosopher, in changing what was a way to redemption into a system of philosophy, Sankara declares that the essence of the Vedas lies in the Upanishads and their statements alone are the statements of truth. However, when following Sankara, a student analyses the Upanisadic statements about reality he finds that they cancel out each other, that whatever they proclaim about reality they subsequently disclaim, that Upanisadic statements too are, in the final analysis, false fabrications and that the Upanisads themselves acknowledge them as false fabrications. This is all that the knower of the Vedas comes to know. No statement, be it philosophical, common-sensical, Vedic or scientific, can be a true statement. The knower of the Vedas who had purged himself of all passions and desires when he became eligible to study them, now gets, through the Upanisadic 'thinking', purged of all thinking. All that remains for him is the Vedic word which he no longer interprets because his reasoning has not been able to elicit any coherent meaning out of it. And yet he it told that the Vedic word alone is the truth. He, the truly dispassionate and impoverished soul, is then asked to meditate on the word alone the meditate so deeply that the world alone should remain and the meditator should fade into it. It is at that time that word will reveal itself as the Real, making the meditator one with it. The purpose of this Upanisadic advocacy of untruth and its subsequent disavowal is to turn the seeker of truth into a devotee of untruth (the Vedic word), to make the pilgrim find his destination in the journey itself, to enable him to find maya itself as Brahman. This work will spare no pains in refuting the view that Sankara is a mayavadin.
Sankara is a commentator and not an 'original' philosopher because he would make us aware of the non-human, the a-pauruseya, reality of the vac, of the word, the word of the Vedas, and participate in it and get absorbed in it. And Sankara is a bhasyakara, a commentator, not because he is a theologian. He is, in every truth, our guru, our guide, who leads us to the revealed word, the word that turns into reality the moment an innocent soul approaches it after its long sojourn in hell and purgatory. The present work will explain in detail how the word as a means, as a utensil, changes into the symbol of reality and how the symbol changes into reality itself.
The tradition of participation in the word, the symbol of reality as if it were reality itself, is as old as the Vedas. This tradition flourished in Buddhism in the form of vipassana meditation. The tradition continued with full vigour in the Vedanta of Sankara and in the medieval saints like Kabir, Nanak, Ravidas, Jnanesvara, Namadeva and others. And we find this tradition emerging in modern times in the preceptor of the present writer, Sri Mangatram, to whom this work is dedicated. Sages like Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna too belong to this tradition. The medieval and modern sages asked their followers to meditate on the nama, the name of the Lord, as if the name and the Lord were one. Meditation on, and absorption in, the name, they said, will lead one to the realisation of the Lord. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a fervent devotee but he too asked his followers to repeat the name of the Lord. Maharshi Ramana too approved of this method. His method of vicara may, however, seem different from the Upanisadic method. But, in truth, it is not different. The method implies concentration on the word 'I', the bared subject-term, without caring to predicated anything of it. 'Who am I?' is meant to achieve this state alone. To concentrate, he said, on 'I' alone is knowledge; to say 'I am a man' is ignorance. So the tradition is the same: the innocent concentration on a word and getting absorbed in it. I shall elaborate this point in detail in the body of the work.
If we want to understand the true meaning of Sankara's teaching, we have to follow the tradition of sages and seers and not of learned philosophers who changed what was a cure for the malady we choose to call life into a system of philosophy. I do not undermine the great abilities and powers of these gifted souls. No one can speak lightly or disrespectfully about men like the great Vacaspati Misra or of modern scholars. But to study Sankara as if he were a mere philosopher, even 'the greatest of all philosophers', is a sure way of not understanding him. These able and accomplished scholars have often been busy about understanding the distinction between maya and Brahman, between the relative truth and the absolute truth, between reality and appearance; they have frequently been quarreling about the locus of the primal ignorance, about the nature of jnana, knowledge, about the conflict between the theologian is Sankara and the philosopher in him. These disputes have led to many misunderstandings about the 'thought' of Sankara. You hear many serious students of Sankara complaining that he is one of the most misunderstood of philosophers.
To understand Sankara and to eliminate the confusion created by a whole mass of commentaries and scholarly disputes, it is necessary to go back to his own works and read them with care and without presuppositions. This, of course, requires knowledge of Sanskrit and at a highly sophisticated level, which it is unreasonable to except in every thinking soul. If Sankara is to reach every 'thinking mind', 'thinking mind' in the sense I have used the term, then he has to be made available to them in a reliable and readable translation. It is a relatively free translation, for the aim is to enable the reader to understand Sankara's meaning without difficulty, an aim that a literal translation will have failed to accomplish (the difference between the respective structures of the two languages being what it is). This has meant enormous responsibilities of interpretation. The reader should also keep in mind that Sankara's writings assume the context of teacher-pupil relationship. Many ideas are merely hinted at which it is assumed the teacher will explain to the disciple. The aphoristic style is not entirely abandoned even in the commentaries. A scholar who has not had the opportunity of participating in what Sankara calls the true tradition, the tradition of seers, will find many passages obscure and puzzling. How successful I have been in explaining the meaning of such passages, I leave to the judgment of the reader. I can only say that I have done my best to communicate to the reader the 'thought' of Sankara.
The reader will come across passages where Sankara explains the etymology of words or the grammatical structures of certain texts. These may bore, even irritate, the reader unfamiliar with Sanskrit. He may, if he likes, ignore them. But he cannot take this liberty with every explanation of this kind; for there will be contexts in which grammar and meaning will not consent to part company. I would request the reader to bear with me and my limitations in such a situation.
Even an ideal translation, and much more by translation, could not communicate everything to the modern reader, especially one nurtured in the Western tradition of thought. The translation has to be supplemented with a commentary, and a commentary written in an idiom that contemporary man can understand and participate in. Now a problem that every commentator of a much misunderstood and ancient wisdom and thought has to solve is the problem of how much 'knowledge' he should assume in the reader he has in mind. To assume nothing will of course be unpractical, to assume everything will mean writing for academicians alone and excluding creative thinkers and artists and, above all, those genuine seekers for whom the Upanisads and the commentaries were composed. I have tried to strike a balance between the two extremes by choosing to write in the language that has become a part of the contemporary intellectual world. In other words, I have assumed some acquaintance with the thought of important modern writers. Those familiar with the post-modernist thought will find that I discuss the views and assumptions of the proponents of this thought without, in every case, mentioning their names. This is the case with other thinkers too, but especially with thinkers of this school. I have done this to spare myself and the reader the distraction of polemics. My aim is to make contemporary man participate in the spirit of the Upanisads and the great Commentator. For this purpose, I have often explained in brief the position of the thinker I am discussing. I hope I will be spared the charge of pedantry and the love of needles controversies. Academic perfection is not the aim of the present work.
Indeed, if truth be told, the literary tradition of the West provides better analogues to the spirit of the Upanisads and Advaita Vedanta than its philosophers. I have, especially in the first chapter, often invoked Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and poets like Rilke and Wordsworth to communicate at least a part of the meaning of the Upanisadic vision. My analyses will not, of course, let the reader blur the distinction between the two traditions. But he will, I hope, find that Western literature has greater affinity with the Upanishadic tradition than Western philosophy. This approach may offend those who are out to prove the philosophical vigour of the Vedantic tradition. But I do not believe that insight and depth cannot accompany intellectual vigour. The two can go together and, in Vedanta, have gone together. It is also a mistake to undermine the intellectual depth of the great literary writers of the West.
The purpose behind this juxtaposition of the two traditions, Indian and Western, is to let them speak to each other and understand each other. The reader will find that Homer and Dante would not sing unintelligibly in the holy world of the Upanisads, the world ever reverberating with the word-shattering sound of the udgitha. A Naciketas might not find their despair deep enough or their vision tragic enough but he would certainly not fail to respond to them. Nor would the Greek and the Medieval European mind fail to understand the Indian mind at least its meditation on the redemptive possibilities of man's mortal lot. It is only modern civilisation, a civilisation ever anxious to speak to reality rather than allow reality to speak it, that finds the Indian tradition unintelligible and 'mystical'. Modern man has ceased to feel the dread extent of the mystery of what we ordinarily deem to be familiar things; he cannot even suspect how fearfully and redemptively abysmal are the depths that ever heave within them. He can only find them 'interesting' or problematic. They rouse his curiosity and his greed but do not strike him dumb and deaf. And if he ever comes to feel fear in their presence, it is a petty narcissistic fear that he feels, not the dread that can shatter man into beatitude. Some recent attempts at mellowing this arrogance of modernism have shown little sensitivity to what the Faustian man has lost through his obstinate commitment to perpetual interpretation. Man is no longer expected and asked to open himself out to reality, to allow it to visit him, to enrich and suffuse him; he is only asked to move on from one interpretation to another interpretation.
This civilisation which is pathologically anxious to bury the very thought of mortality in 'rationality' and consumer culture, has made modern man lose all awareness of the enormity of the spiritual loss involved in this 'bestial oblivion'. When I say this I do not wish to undermine the strands of sober self-criticism that also constitute a part of this civilisation. But with all such discordant notes, modern civilisation has, in actual fact, reduced man into an obsessive consumer, a consumer that threatens to replace even the rational man, that revered father of this civilisation. For too long has the Faustian man passed judgments on other cultural attitudes. It is time this chronic judge remembered that he too could be the accused.
Modern scholars tend to dismiss the Upanisadic tradition as one among the many 'philosophical' traditions of India. They feel more at home with the logical and linguistic analysis of some Buddhist and Navyanyaya logicians. I should like to submit that with all the vandalism wrought by these logicians, the soul of India remains Upanisadic in essence and approach, that even its logic, in its original from, is more participatory than analytic. The present volume did not provide me much opportunity to discuss this aspect of Indian logic but I do hope to take it up when I come to discuss 'the more philosophical' sports in Sankara's commentaries.
This work was written in intellectual loneliness but I feel happy to note that established scholars have liked my approach to the Advaita Vedantic tradition. I owe a word of gratitude to the following:
Professor Bimal K. Matilal, University of Oxford; Professor Raimundo Panikkar, the celebrated author of The Vedic Experience, Professor P. T. Raju, the College of Wooster, Ohio; Professor Daya Krishna; Professor Eliot Deutsch, University of Hawaii; Professor R. DeSmet, Instituto Storico S.J., Rome; Professor K. Satchidananda Murty; Professor Harold G. Coward, the University of Calgary; Professor Thomas E. Wood, Berkeley, California; Professor Debabrata Sinha, Brock University; Professor Klaus K. Klostermaier, University of Manitoba; Professor Stefano Piano, University of Torino; Professor Srinivasa Rao, Bangalore University.
I also owe many a thing to others:
To Prabha, my wife, and my daughters, Meenakshi, Priyamvada and Nandini. They thought my 'preoccupations' were more important than their comforts and happiness; I thought otherwise. And it was their will that prevailed.
To Indian Council for Philosophical Research for a grant or Rs. 5000 and also Mr. Venugopal Tapadia for an equal grant. These grants enabled me to meet a part of the expenses incurred in the preparation of the manuscript. I thank them both.
To Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya, scholar, philosopher and gentleman, for suggesting the idea of the work; to Mr. N.P. Jain, Managing Director, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., for constant encouragement and supply of books.
To my student, Sunjay Sharma, who read out the entire manuscript patiently in my presence and checked my spellings and corrected my mistake and, on occasions, made thoughtful suggestions. It is rarely that a teacher comes across a student f this kind. To my friend, Sivanaryana Sastri, who united a few troublesome grammatical knots.
Now a last word to the reader. This work forms only a part of my project. The volumes, to follow will contain translation of the entire Prasthanatrayi and Sankara's bhasya, accompanied by an elaborate commentary. I must explain to the non-specialist reader that the Prasthanatrayi means the Upanisads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahmasutras. Some scholars have questioned Sankara's authorship of certain commentaries attributed to him. But I have decided to translate all the commentaries (except that on Svetasvatara Upanisad and what has come to be called vakya-bhasya on Kena Upanisad). When we have studied them word for word it will be time to discuss the question of their authorship.
From the Jacket:
The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man highlights the conceptual and existential relevance of Sankara Vedanta for contemporary man. The work, which, as at present planned, will run into ten volumes, is addressed to philosophers, to artists, to culture critics and, above all, to those men and women for whom distinctions like meaning and non-meaning, reality and appearance, fall and redemption have ceased to have much appeal.
Volume I offers to the reader a faithful and readable translation of Isa, Kena, Katha and Prasna Upanisads and Sankara's bhasya on them. An elaborate modern commentary accompanies the translation. The volumes to follow will cover the entire Prasthanatrayi
About the Author:
Som Raj Gupta teaches English at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi, Delhi, India.
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