Prasthana Traya: The Triple Canonical Base of Vedanta Scriptures Followed by Shankara – Part 1/4: Introduction

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Vedanta and the Prasthana Traya
  3. Rationale Behind the Prasthana Traya : Revealation, Reasoning and Experience
  4. Shankara’s Commentaries on the Prasthana Traya
    1. Shankara’s Advaita Commentaries: Ony Ones to Account for All Literature of Prasthanatraya
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

I spent the first seventeen years of my inquiry primary with the teachings of J Krishnamurti (JK). But I seemed to reach a stalemate after that. While the teachings of JK covered almost every area of life, they failed to address my metaphysical curiosities about what is creation and from where it came. JK was primarily a master in investigating the psychological causes of suffering. Despite having learned immensely about psychological causes of suffering from him, something within me kept clamouring to get metaphysical answers for questions like what is life, birth, death, self and creation. Moreover, like most Yoga based teachings, Krishnamurti used to hammer at thought. Psychological thought according to him, in line with the teachings of Yoga based dualist schools, veils reality. Thought is the known – he used to say – only in the ending of the known could one come in touch with the unknown. While this made sense to me, I could not overcome the dichotomy of the fact that one has to use thought for inquiry and at the same time see the end of it. For unmistakably, I could see that only highly advanced intellects got attracted to the teachings of JK. (For the difference between the teachings of JK and Advaita, one may read my article, “Differences Between Advaita and J Krishnamurti : A Dialogue”)

Unlike the depictions of Yoga based teachers like Buddha, Mahavira and other Hindu Yogis, Shankara is never depicted in a posture of meditation with eyes closed. He is also always depicted with a bundle of scriptures in his hand. This is a great testament to the fact that Advaita Vedanta, the path followed by Shankara does not believe in ending or shutting thought, but it’s science of Jnana Yoga is about using the subtle organ of thought called intellect and sharpen it to such an extent that it takes you to reality that lies beyond thought called Self/Brahman/Witness/Awareness.

This was the singular most important reason why I moved from the teachings of Krishnamurti to Advaita. My inherently philosophical mind thirsting for dialectics and explanations, found it’s home. Here philosophy and thinking is not derided, in fact encouraged to be taken to the hilt through the discipline of shravana (reading/listening scriptures), mañana (reflection/dialogue) and nidhidhyasana (contemplation/different from meditation). In fact the place of shravana or listening to the scriptures is of the utmost value to Shankara. To a prepared mind, this in itself can give instant liberation without any further action or practices. Thus, for any student of Advaita Vedanta, two things are non-negotiable for enlightenment: scriptures and a teacher well versed in the authentic tradition of teaching the scriptures (called agama). For more on this one may read my article Shabda Pramana: Enlightenment through Words in Advaita Vedanta: Presenting a Dialogue

The other thing that endears me to Advaita Vedanta is that it is not founded by any human by the name of Buddha, Mahavira, Christ or Muhammad. Instead, Advaita Vedanta is a set of teachings based primarily on revealed scriptures of non-human origin. (I shall be talking more about this in my future parts to this series of articles.) Moreover, what is revealed by the scriptures in not a reality that cannot be universally and experientially verified by anyone who follows the discipline and logic enjoined in the scriptures. It is ultimately post-scientific knowledge, not a private mystical experience that cannot be transmitted (I have discussed this in some detail in my article “Faith vs Reason in the Spiritual Science of Advaita”). In fact Advaita has been transmitted through a teacher-student tradition in an unbroken link since creation. (I shall elaborate this concept in Part 2 of this series)

In Sankara’s words, a true teacher’s tradition is called “sampradaya” (transmission, granting; that is, a handing over of an established doctrine from teacher to teacher). Sankara values the knowledge of this tradition more highly than any kind of learning or erudition. He writes,

“[A] conceited knower might say: I shall reveal the essence of samsara /bonds/ and the essence of liberation, /I shall reveal/ the essence of the sastras, but he is himself confused and is stupefying others since he rejected the teachers’ tradition of deliberation on the essence of the sastras and came to the refutation of scripture and to mental constructions opposing scripture. (Sankara’s Commentary on the Bhagavadgita (Gitabhasya), XIII. 2)

Also, his commentary on Kenopanisad, 1. 4:

“Indeed, Brahman can be grasped only through the instructions of teachers, transmitted from one to the other, and not owing to reasoning, nor through intelligence or many heard /texts/, ascetic practices, sacrifices, etc.”

Given the importance of scriptures in Advaita Vedanta I am writing a series of articles to elucidate in detail about the prasthana traya : the triple canonical base of scriptures that form the teachings of Advaita Vedanta, and how they shaped my inquiry at different phases. Alongside, I shall be focussing on Adi Shankaracharya’s commentaries on the prasthana traya for two reasons, 1.) they are the oldest surviving commentaries on prasthana trayas we have as of date that serve as a raft for a seeker to carry him across the ocean of samsara to liberation, 2.) I follow the path of Advaita Vedanta of whom Shankaracharya is the most authoritative exponent besides Gaudapada. 3.) However the biggest reason for following Shankara is that it is the only correct interpretation of the Vedanta scriptures. I shall talk about this towards the end of my article.

Vedanta and the Prasthana Traya?

System of Vedic Scriptures

Vedānta means in the first place the “Conclusion of the Veda” in the double sense that the Veda has come to an end here and that it has come to a conclusion. This final portion of the Veda comprises principally the Upanishads, which form the last tier in the monument we call the Veda. In the second place, Vedānta is an abbreviation of Vedāntamīmāmsā, or the “Enquiry into the Vedānta”—the name of the most interesting, most influential, and most diverse of the philosophical traditions of Hindu India. Its very name implies a program: it is a tradition which intends to base itself on the Vedānta in the primary sense, the Upanishads. The Upanishads, however, are not the only foundation of Vedānta

(Please right click on picture to enlarge and open in a new tab)

Classical Vedānta recognizes three “points of departure” (prasthāna traya) for its philosophy; that is to say that all Vedānta true to its name accepts the authority of three texts, or sets of texts, which authenticate its conclusions. Literally, prasthana means departure, setting out (from the verb root prastha, proceed to, set out); however, in theological and philosophical systems the term acquires a new meaning: that of a method or canonical system. The first and the foremost canonical source of Vedanta is the sruti-prasthana, or the canonical base of revelation, formed by the Upanishads. The second, or smrti-prasthana (canonical base of remembered tradition) is presented by Bhagavadgita, while the nyaya-prasthana (canonical base of reasoning) is Brahmasutra. It is clear, therefore, that any investigation into Vedānta must be preceded by an enquiry into its traditional sources. These sources may appear to be difficult and at times indeed abstruse; but they set up the problems to which Vedānta addresses itself and which it intends to resolve through its commentaries on these sources.

The basic works of the founders of the different Vedānta schools present themselves as commentaries on the traditional sources; while most of their works are original to a high degree and often seem to owe little more to the admitted sources than an inspiration, nevertheless the philosophers themselves in all honesty present themselves as commentators only. It is not for them to “find” the truth; the truth is already there. It is enough for them to explicate the available truth. Contrary to the commonly prevailing notion, Shankara was not founder of any separate system of Vedanta. He followed the hoary line of commentators on the three prasthana trayas. I have dealt with this in detail in my article “Shankara: Not The Founder of Advaita Vedanta But A Link in the Timeless Tradition”. Further, in my article “Difficulties in Finding the True Method of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya – Part 2 : Pre-Shankara Schools”, I have described several pre-Shankara writers whom Shankara quotes in his commentaries.

Rationale Behind the Prasthana Traya : Revealation, Reasoning and Experience

The central aim of Vedanta is liberation of man from all suffering or Moksa. Given the complexity of the undertaking, the tradition of Vedanta relies on the three canons to deliver three different levels of support to a seeker. While different schools of Vedanta differ on their interpretations on these texts, they all look up to these three texts for drawing doctrinal support.

Besides the fulfilment by these three texts, of the threefold methodological approach of śruti (revealation), yukti (reasoning), anubhava (experience)—which is important from the perspective of realizing the objective of Vedānta (liberation)—they are also complementary. The Upaniṣads, being the śruti, are the primary scriptural authority to deliver knowledge of supersensible reality through revealation. (In this regard, one may read my article, ” Shabda Pramana: Enlightenment through Words in Advaita Vedanta: Presenting a Dialogue“) The writing of the Brahma-sūtra was a logical development in the history of Vedānta and it is a presentation of the teachings of the Upaniṣads according to Bādarāyaṇa. They present the teachings of Vedanta through reasoning and logic. Though they differ in their metaphysics, all the Vedānta schools are in agreement that the Brahma-sūtra best presents the central teaching of the Upaniṣads systematically. The same unanimity extends to the Bhagavad-gītā among smṛtis which describes the experiential co-ordinates of the journey of moksha. As indicated earlier, there were Vedāntins upholding different philosophical views before and after Śaṅkara: Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the prasthānatraya texts is from the Advaita standpoint, which is what I am concerned with. Śaṅkara adopts a methodological approach in his writings wherein he gives primacy to śruti, then smṛti, which are the works of sages, and finally to nyāya (reason) of the Brahmasutras.

The above shows the all encompassing strength of tradition that backs up a path like Advaita Vedanta, as compared to the teachings of many new age schools today, which do nothing more than cobble up parts of different great traditional teachings, and parcel them out to gullible seekers, who scantily rely on no more than the whims and the personality of an individual teacher. In my article “Self inquiry and issues related to teachers”, I mention the problems seekers have to face with spiritual teachers who are not backed by tradition but “sell” personal experience and rely on personal charm and other accoutrements of ‘spirituality’. The tradition of Advaita with its prasthanatraya guarantees a seeker that he is not at the mercy of personality of any individual. A teacher of Advaita is not leading a seeker by personal charm, but by the teachings of his tradition, to which the student has equal access, rather than some mystical state, which the teacher professes to possess and grant the student. Of course, the teacher of Advaita has to be a knower of Brahman (Self Realized) in order to teach, but apart from that, Shankara emphasizes that he must be well versed with the scriptures and traditional way of teaching :-

“The Sruti (Mu. Up. 1.2.12-13) also says “A Brāhmaṇa after examining those worlds which are the result of Vedic actions should be indifferent to them seeing that nothing eternal can be achieved by means of those actions. Then, with fuel in his hands he should approach a teacher versed in the Vedas and established in Brahman, in order to know the Eternal. The learned teacher should correctly explain to that disciple who has self-control and a tranquil mind, and has approached him in the prescribed manner, the knowledge of Brahman revealing the imperishable and eternal Being.” For only when knowledge is firmly grasped, it conduces to one’s own good and is capable of transmission. This transmission of knowledge is helpful to people, like a boat to one who wants to cross a river. The scriptures too say “Although one may give to the teacher this world surrounded by oceans and full of riches, this knowledge is even greater than that.” Otherwise if it were not taught by a teacher) there would be no attainment of Knowledge. For the Srutis say, “A man (Ch. Up. 6.14.2) having a teacher can know Brahman,” Knowledge (Ch.Up. 4.9.3) received from a teacher alone (becomes perfect),” The teacher is the pilot,” Right Knowledge is called in this world a raft,” etc. The Smriti (Bh. G. 4.34) also says, “knowledge will be imparted to you” etc.

~ Upadesasahasri, verse 1.3 by Shankara

As the verse above shows, grasping knowledge beyond all doubt is the ultimate means for crossing the ocean of samsara and that is the task of the teacher which he/she ensures for his/her student on the basis of his/her personal experience of Brahman and his/her knowledge of scriptures (well versed in Vedas)

Shankara’s Commentaries on the Prasthana Traya

As the prasthāna traya texts are difficult to comprehend and also lend themselves to different interpretations, Shankara undertook the task of writing commentaries on the prasthāna traya: the Brahma-sūtra, the eleven major Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad-gītā. This was the most important task in his mission as these three genres together provide a holistic methodological approach of interpreting the import of the Vedas. He also composed a number of other commentaries, independent works (prakaraṇas) and devotional hymns (stotras). As their number is highly exaggerated, there is yet no consensus about which are authentic except his prasthāna traya commentaries and his book Upadeśa Sāhasri.

As a Vedāntin, Śaṅkara’s was the first to present a coherent framework for Advaita on the basis of the prasthāna traya. This necessitates a basic understanding of the scriptural texts on which he commented to substantiate his viewpoint. The Vedas are known as śruti because they are revelations, and all the works of sages, like the dharma-śāstras, purāṇas and the epics, are known as smṛti (meaning ‘remembered’), and they expound the Vedas only. While commenting on the Vedas, Śaṅkara takes a holistic perspective, that the karma-kāṇḍa (portion dealing with works) and the jñāna-kāṇḍa (portion dealing with knowledge) of the Vedas complement each other by dealing with the two aspects of human life: pravṛtti (secular welfare) and nivṛtti (liberation from bondage), respectively. However, for Shankara, it is the latter section – the jñāna-kāṇḍa – containing the Upaniṣads that is the ultimate authority for the exposition of Vedānta, which is why he follows and comments on Badarayana, author of Brahmasutras, rather than Jaimini, founder of Purva MimAmsA school, who considers the karma kanda of Vedas as primary.

His commentaries established a benchmark in the annals of Vedānta, as thinkers of all Vedānta traditions after him had to live up to his ideal. He is said to have written his commentaries in or near Badarīkāśrama. Last but not the least his commentaries on the prasthanatrayi are the oldest surviving commentaries we have as of date.

Shankara’s Advaita Commentaries: Only One to Account for All Literature of Prasthanatraya

Not everyone who is called to the task of realizing his latent spiritual powers is ready for a path leading to the transcendence of all the finite elements in the personality. To some it suggests the prospect of impoverishment or extinction. Hence it is understandable that at a later time other Teachers, such as Ramanuja, Nimbarka and Vallabhacarya, should have arisen and made a different synthesis of the Upanishadic teaching, regarding the highest result of it as a condition in which the soul retained its individuality, but remained in perpetual proximity with and adoration of the Lord of the Universe, conceived in personal form and understood as the great whole of which the individual worshipper was an infinitesimal part. [1] [2]

But Sankara adhered to the principle of transcendence that had been enunciated in the earliest Upanishads. ‘That which is not seen by the eye, but which beholds the activities of the eye — know that that, verily, is the Absolute (Brahman) and not what people here adore’. (Ken Up. 1.6-7). He could not accept that deliverance from the bondage of illusion and plurality had been attained as long as the notion of any difference between the worshipper and the object of his worship remained. Hence he regarded the (dualistis and) theistic teachings of the ancient texts (like those of Ramanuja, Madhava and other later commentators)[2] as provisional doctrine, aimed partly at introducing the student to the pure transcendent principle through clothing it in forms which he could readily conceive, and partly at preserving him from the grosser errors of materialism and spiritual negligence. He did not regard them as statements of the final truth. It is on account of his strict adherence to the principle of transcendence that Sankara’s writings have been regarded as providing the classical formulation of the Indian wisdom. He alone could account for all the upanishadic texts. None of the pantheistic and theistic commentators who followed him were able to give satisfactory explanations of the negative texts which deny all empirical predicates of the Absolute. And yet, as we shall see, a tradition (sampradaya) which judged these negative statements to be the key texts of the entire Veda had existed long before Sankara’s day. [3]

Conclusion

Having understood the importance given to scriptures in the tradition of Vedanta, especially in the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Shankara, I shall be delving on the first text of the Prastha Traya – the Vedas/Upanishads – in Part 2 of the series.

One may read part 2 here – Prasthana Traya: The Triple Canonical Base of Vedanta Scriptures Followed by Shankara – Part 2/4: Vedas/Upanishads

Notes

  • [1] – Sankara Source Book – Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A J Alston, page 1
  • [2] – There are 6 teachings of Vedanta which arose after Shankara that DO NOT represent the Advaita Vedanta teachings of Shankara. Here is a chart of them. One can find more details in my article “No Schools of Duality Present Till the Time of Shankara”
  • [3] – Sankara Source Book – Volume 1 – Sankara on the Absolute by A J Alston, page 2

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