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


  1. Preface
  2. Introduction
  3. Meaning of the word – Upanishad
  4. Origin of the Upanishads
    1. The Four Vedas and their Divisions
    2. Progression from Samhitas to Upanishads: From Karma to Jnana
      1. Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads
  5. Central Message of the Upanishads: Transcendental and Integral
  6. The Principal Upanishads According to Shankara
  7. Authority of the Upanishads
    1. The Vedas Are of Non-Human Origin
    2. Vedas Hold Authority Only in Matters That Are Supra Sensory (Beyond Perception)
    3. Difference Between Mīmāmsās and Vedantins in Considering the Authority of Vedas: Karma Kanda vs Jnana Kanda (Upanishads)
    4. Shankara’s Emphasis on Jnana Kanda of Vedas or Upanishads
  8. Upanishads are Concerned with Speaking of Ultimate Reality Beyond Mind and Reason
    1. Upanishads Are Not A System of Philosophy
    2. Upanishads Speak of One Grand Unifying Truth Beyond Mind and Senses: Brahman
  9. Method of Upanishads to Convey Ultimate Reality: Brahman
    1. Neti, Neti: Brahman Cannot be Taught by Any Positive Teaching
    2. Agama: Traditional Way of Teaching the Ultimate Reality Found in the Upanishads Revealed by Shankara
    3. Brahman: That Which the Mind Cannot Know
    4. Agama as Attributing False Superimposition (Adhyaropa) Followed by Negation (Apavada)
  10. Notes


This article is Part 2 of the series of articles I have initiated to discuss the three canons of Vedanta: Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutras. One may read part 1 of this series, “Prasthana Traya: The Triple Canonical Base of Vedanta Scriptures Followed by Shankara – Part 1: Introduction” , if one has not already done so, in order to understand the place of Upanishadic canon in the teachings of Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta. In this article I am discussing the first prasthana or canon of Vedanta called sruti prasthana or the Vedas/Upanishads.


Any Indian would be living under the rock if he/she has not come across some verse of the Upanishads knowingly or unknowingly. Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), which is the national motto of India is part of a verse from Mandukya Upanishad 3.1.6. I wrote these two words and pasted them on my hostel room door when I faced the horrors of ragging. Similarly, Mrityurma Amritam GamayahLead me from death to immortality, is part of another powerful well known verse from Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.2.28. These are words from eternity that hold the light to eternity for any seeker of truth. This is so not only for Indians but for people of all lands. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German Philosopher who modelled his philosophy on the Upanishads, said, “From every sentence deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and a high and holy and earnest spirit pervades the whole. In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads… It has been the solace of my life; and it will be the solace of my death. They are the product of the highest wisdom…”

Speaking about the universality and rationality of Upanishads, Vernon Katz, author of book, “The Upanishads”, writes, “I was hooked. As we read through more Upanishads, the conviction grew that here was the truth. It was self-evident. No proof was needed, even across the span of centuries. I had stumbled on it, and I have never wavered from this conviction. These fellows knew what they were talking about. They had seen through the veil.

National Emblem of India contains the words “Satyamev Jayate”

It was quite clear: This was not about belief, it was about experience. The sages were speaking about states of consciousness in this life that could be experienced by anyone. The fundamental insight was that the deepest layer of one’s own experience, one’s Self, was identical with the basis of the world outside. There was a unity of all things.

So, in this article we shall look into what are the Upanishads, how they relate to the Vedas and finally what is the truth they contain and how do they communicate it.

Meaning of the Word – Upanishads

The Upanishads are known as the end section of the Vedas – jnana kanda – that deals with knowledge—knowledge of the ultimate reality. Since the Upanishads are part of the Veda, they are regarded as shruti, or “that which is heard.” The word upanishad means “sit down near”: upa (near), ni (down) and shad (sit). Traditionally, the student sat down near the teacher to receive secret instruction, and in this way knowledge was passed down from teacher to student, linking each new generation back to the ancient tradition of the Upanishads. Many of the Upanishads consist of a dialogue between teacher and student in the deep quietude of a forest hermitage (ashrama) or in the home of the teacher (where the students lived as part of a system called guru-kula).

The great teacher Shankara explained the word upanishad as “the knowledge of Brahman by which ignorance is destroyed in his introduction to Katha Upanishad. In other accounts, “sit down near” (upanishad) refers to the hidden connection between everything, whether it is the connection between the teacher and student, or more broadly, the infinite correlation among all things, the oneness of reality. In this way the word upanishad might be thought of as a state of consciousness in which everything is connected to one’s own Self.

Origin of the Upanishads

1. The Four Vedas and their Divisions

The Vedas are the religious texts which inform the religion of Hinduism (also known as Sanatan Dharma meaning “Eternal Order” or “Eternal Path”). The term veda means “knowledge” in that they are thought to contain the fundamental knowledge relating to the underlying cause of, function of, and personal response to existence. They are considered among the oldest, if not the oldest, religious works in the world. The Vedas existed in oral form and were passed down from master to student for generations until they were committed to writing between c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE (the so-called Vedic Period) in India. They were carefully preserved orally as masters would have students memorize them forwards and backwards with emphasis on exact pronunciation in order to keep what was originally heard intact.

Vedic literature can be divided into four principal parts, which correspond to the four priestly offices at the Soma sacrifice; these are the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharvaveda, each of which comprises a Samhita, a Brahmana, and a Sutra. The Brahmana (in the wider sense of the term) is then further divided by the exponents of the Vedanta into three orders, which as regards their contents are for the most part closely connected with and overlap one another, viz.—Vidhi, ArthavAda, and VedAnta or Upanishad. The following scheme shows this primary classification of the Veda :—

2. Progression from Samhitas to Upanishads: From Karma to Jnana

The literature of the Vedas depicted above show a progressive evolution from action desiring results to gaining that knowledge which no action can give – eternity.

a. Samhita

It is the name given to the collection of mantras or hymns and prayers in praise of Deities for attaining prosperity here and happiness hereafter. Samhita portion is considered as the principal text of a Veda. This portion is mainly meant for Brahmacharis, those who are in the first stage of their lives.

b. Brahmana

This portion of a Veda guides people in the performance of Vedic Karmas or sacrificial rituals; they are the prose explanations of the method of using the mantras in the Yajnas and other rituals. Brahmana is suitable for the householders, those belonging to the second stage in life.

c. Aranyaka

When one seeks the solitude of the forests (Aranya) for further concentration, the physical performance of Yajnas will be impracticable for various reasons more so due to old age. The Aranyaka portion is addressed to the people of that category, offering a substitute for rituals. They teach methods of meditation based upon symbolical interpretations of sacrificial rites. It is a process of performing Yajnas and sacrifices at the mental level. For example Brihadaranyaka Upanishad starts with such analytical mental performance of Aswamedha Yajna. The Aranyakas are intended for the Vanaprasthas or people who prepare themselves for the last stage in life i.e. Sanyasa. Aranyakas form the transition link between the ritual of the Brahmanas and the philosophy of the Upanishads.

d. Upanishads

The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas which discuss philosophical issues. They are the essence of the Vedas containing their knowledge aspects. The philosophy of the Upanishads occupies the highest pedestal in the spiritual knowledge. They speak about the identity of the Supreme Eternal Soul, the Brahman, the individual soul, the Atman, their mutual relationship, the Universe (jagat) and man’s place in it. In short they deal with Jiva, Jagat and Jagadishwara.

Dr. Radhakrishnan puts it like this. “While the hymns or Samhitas are the creation of the poets, the Brahmanas are the work of the priests; the Upanishads are the meditations of the philosophers. The flow of thought from the Samhitas to Brahmanas to Aranyakas to Upanishads is the indication of the process of evolution of Hindu religion over the centuries”

Thus we have in the Vedas portions dealing with the action or performance of rituals – Karma Kanda, portions dealing with the method of worship and meditation – Upasana Kanda and lastly the portion dealing with the Highest knowledge, the knowledge of Brahman – Jnana Kanda. Roughly speaking, the Samhitas and Brahmanas constitute Karma Kanda, the Aranyakas the Upasana Kanda and the Upanishads the Jnana Kanda.

Central Message of the Upanishads: Transcendental and Integral

The Upanishadic teachings crystallize around a number of key terms, the most important of which are Atman and Brahman. Atman, “the Self”, is at the root of the experience of self, or “I”, which is found in every human being. It is the Formless Reality which one is, above Life and Death, and above space and time. Every one is that Reality, although without being aware of it, and It shines in the heart and mind of all living beings.

The whole Upanishadic approach and the types of “realization” or “enlightenment” which are its goal can be described as simultaneously “transcendental” and “integral”. The Upanishadic teachings are “transcendental” in the sense that they deal with something—experience, being, reality, whatever one may want to call it—that is beyond (or that transcends) mind and matter and consciousness, that is incomparably greater than these and at the same time somehow includes them, and that is the very essence of human existence and the world. At the same time the Being or the Reality that is being taught is something in which all the major modes and categories of human understanding (realism and idealism, mind, matter, and consciousness, self and other, internal and external, individual, society, nature and cosmos, immanence and transcendence, human, divine, and Absolute, etc.), as well as all knowledge and consciousness of the phenomenal world, are all included in an indivisible Integral Aspect, viz. Brahman. The aim of human life and existence is to “realize” that and “become” that Brahman.

The Principal Upanishads According to Shankara

According to the Muktika Upanishad there are 108 Upanishads, although scholars later recorded more than two hundred. The first ten are considered to be the principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka. Sometimes the Shvetashvatara is also added, bringing the list to eleven. Shankara commented on these eleven. Because he also referred to four other Upanishads (Kaushitaki, Jabala, Mahanarayana and Paingala) in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, these Upanishads are sometimes also included as principal Upanishads, bringing the list to fifteen (or fourteen, if the Shvetashvatara Upanishad is not included). Each of the Upanishads is associated with one of the four Vedas: Rik, Sama, Yajus and Atharva.

Authority of the Upanishads

1. The Vedas Are of Non-Human Origin

It is well known to those who follow the Veda that the phrase ‘the method of the Vedanta’ refers to the method for teaching knowledge of the Absolute observed in the Upanishads. Knowledge of the Absolute first manifested at the beginning of a world-period in the mind of Hiranyagarbha or Brahma, who has received the Veda from the supreme Lord. The method, carried on continuously by a succession of Teachers beginning with Brahma (called sampradaya), has even come down to certain Teachers of modern times. And earnest seekers of release can still today achieve their goal by. acquiring an unshakable conviction about the truths in the science of the Upanishads, taught by a true Guru. For we have the Upanishadic texts and smritis, [1]

‘In search of release, I take refuge in that deity, the light of my intellect, who projects Brahma at the beginning of a world-period and delivers to him the Vedas’ (Svet. Up. VI.18).

‘Brahma taught this to Prajapati, Prajapati to Manu, Manu to the people’ (Chand.VIII.xvi.1)

Now the lines of Vedic Teachers’ (Brhad. Up. III.v.1)

‘Naciketas, having attained this knowledge taught to him by death (Yama)… realized the Absolute and passed beyond passion and death. And anyone else who, like Naciketas, knows the inmost Self (adhydtma), will do the same’ (Katha Up. II.iii.18),

That knowledge of Brahman which Brahma taught to Atharva, Atharva taught to Angira in ancient days; and he taught it to one of the Bharadvaja family by name Satyavaha; and Satyavaha taught to Angiras the knowledge so descended from the greater to the less. (Mund. Up. I.i.1-2)

I taught this imperishable yoga to Vivasvan, Vivasvan taught it to Manu, Manu taught it to Ikshavaku.Handed down from generation to generation in this way, the Kings who were sages knew it. (Bh.G.IV.1-2).

If we are to form a proper understanding of the meaning and scope of “Revelation,” we do well to forget at once the implications of the term in the Mediterranean religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Sanskrit term for it is śruti, literally “the hearing,” which means an erudition acquired by listening to the instruction of a teacher. As mentioned earlier, this instruction itself had been transmitted to the teacher through an uninterrupted series of teachers that stretches to the beginning of creation. Revelation, therefore, is by no means God’s word—because, paradoxically, if it were to derive from a divine person, its credibility would be impugned. It is held to be authorless, for if a person, human or divine, had authored it, it would be vulnerable to the defects inherent in such a person. It is axiomatic that revelation is infallible, and this infallibility can be defended only if it is authorless. Then from where does it come? The answer is stark and simple: it is given with the world. For some of the Mīmāmsā (or orthodox, exegetical) thinkers who have addressed themselves to this problem, the world is beginningless and the assumption of a creator is both problematic and unnecessary. And even if a beginning of the world is assumed, as in later Hindu thought when it is held that the universe goes through a pulsating rhythm of origination, existence, and dissolution, it is also held that at the dawn of a new world the revelation reappears to the vision of the seers, who once more begin the transmission.

2. Vedas Hold Authority Only in Matters That Are Supra Sensory (Beyond Perception)

Revelation, then, comes with the world, and it embodies the laws which regulate the well-being of both world and man. It lays down first and foremost what is our dharma, our duty. This duty is more precisely defined as a set of acts which either must be done continuously (nitya), or occasionally (naimittika), or to satisfy a specific wish (kāmya). While we would be inclined to look upon the Revelation as a more or less continuous series of historic texts, spanning close to a millennium from ca. 1400 B.C.E. till 500 B.C.E., orthodoxy looks upon it as eternal and therefore simultaneous.[2]

Also, the Mīmāmsā (School which considers Karma Kanda (action/rituals portion) of Vedas as primary, laid down rather rigorous criteria for its authority. Orthodox consensus recognizes three fundamental means of knowledge, each of which has its own scope of authority. Of these means (pramānas), sensory perception (pratyaksha) holds the first place, for it is through perception that the world is evident to us. Built upon perception is inference (anumāna), in which a present perception combines with a series of past perceptions to offer us a conclusion about a fact which is not perceptibly evident. While these two means of knowledge, perceiving and reasoning, tell us everything about the world that we wish to know, they cannot give us any knowledge about matters that are suprasensory. It is here that the force of Revelation comes in. [3]

Therefore, From the Mīmāmsā point of view, for example, the Four Vedas as we call them, the Veda of the hymns (rig), the formulae (yajus), the chants (sāma), and the incantations (atharva), are almost entirely under the rubric of “spell.” The large disquisitions of the Brāhmanas are almost entirely “discussion,” except for the scattered injunctions in them; and the same largely holds for the third layer of texts, the Āranyakas. Generally speaking, Vedānta will go along with this view. [4]

3. Difference Between Mīmāmsās and Vedantins in Considering the Authority of Vedas: Karma Kanda vs Jnana Kanda (Upanishads)

It is, however, with the last layer of text (the Vedānta or the Upanishads) that Mīmāmsikās and Vedāntins come to a parting of ways. For the Mīmāmsikās the Upanishads are in no way an exception to the rules that govern the Revelation as a whole. Nothing much is enjoined in them nor do they embody marked spells. In fact, they are fundamentally “discussion,” (atharvavada) specifically discussion of the self; and such discussion certainly has a place in the exegetical scheme of things, for this self is none other than the personal agent of the rites and this agent no doubt deserves as much discussion as, say, the sacrificial pole.[4]

Basically therefore the Mīmāmsikās find the Revelation solely, and fully, authoritative when it lays down the Law on what actions have to be undertaken by what persons under what circumstances for which purposes. Vedānta accepts this, but only for that portion of Revelation which bears on ritual acts, the karmakānda. But to relegate the portion dealing with knowledge, the jñānakānda, to the same ritual context is unacceptable. It is taken for granted that karmakānda indeed defines the principle of authority in injunctions of acts to be done, but Vedānta declines on the one hand that the Upanishads embody an injunction (e.g., that Brahman or the self must be studied and known, or that the world must be dephenomenalized) and declines on the other hand that if the Upanishads bear on no injunction they have simply the limited authoritative standing of a discussion. [4]

4. Shankara’s Emphasis on Jnana Kanda of Vedas or Upanishads

The consensus of the Vedānta is that in the Upanishads significant and authoritative statements are made concerning the nature of Brahman. From the foregoing it will have become clear that very little of the Revelation literature preceding the Upanishads was of systematic interest to the Vedāntins. For example, Śankara quotes less than twenty verses from the entire Rigveda in his commentary on the Brahmasūtras, about fourteen lines from the largest Brāhmana of them all, the Śatapatha Brāhmana, but no less than thirty-four verses from the Mundaka Upanishad, a fairly minor and short Upanishad. This is not to say that Vedānta rejects the previous literature, but that it considers all the relevant wisdom of the Veda concerning these issues to have been embedded in the Upanishads.[5]

Upanishads are Concerned with Speaking of Ultimate Reality Beyond Mind and Reason

1. Upanishads Are Not A System of Philosophy

Philosophy is “the product of human thought, acting upon the data given. by the world without, or the world within, and eliciting from these data principles, laws and system.’’[6]. In this sense, of course, Vedanta is no philosophy, for one of the fundamental principles adopted here is ‘Naisha Tarkena Matirapaneya’ (This Knowledge is not attainable through speculation, Kena Up. 1-2-9).

According to another writer, ‘The object matter of Philosophy’, it has been observed, ‘may be distinguished as God or Nature or Man. But underlying all our enquiries into any of these departments, there is a first philosophy which seeks to ascertain the grounds or principles of knowledge and the causes of all things. Hence, philosophy has been said to be the science of causes and principles. It is the investigation of these knowledge and all being ultimately rest’ [7]

It will be noted that the Upanishads do treat of God, Nature and Man – and all other creatures for that matter – and from this point of view, may be said to cover the entire field of ‘the objective matter of philosophy ‘ as herein described. It may not lay claim to be the ‘first philosophy’ as seeking to ascertain the principles of knowledge and causes of all things, since it is no speculation, but nevertheless, in its own way, it does present very definite ideas as to the nature and limitations of discursive knowledge, no less than the ultimate cause of all things. If the reader is liberal enough to bear with this slight difference, he will be willing to bring even Vedanta under the connotation of the word ‘philosophy’.[8]

However, even by this stretch, the Upanishads are not by any means a system of philosophy. ‘The New Standard Dictionary’ defines a system of philosophy as : Orderly combination or arrangement as of particulars or elements into a whole ; especially such combination according to some rational principle or organic idea giving it unity and completeness.’’ This definition may not wholly apply to the Vedanta of the Upanishads, since it is not a rational system, as has been already admitted,

2. Upanishads Speak of One Grand Unifying Truth Beyond Mind and Senses: Brahman

But there is a more general description : “System is an organised body of truth, or truths”.[9] Now, the meaning of this description may be taken to be wide enough to justify the view that the Vedanta philosophy is systematic inasmuch as it brings everything under one and the same idea, that of Paramartha or Reality and inasmuch as all truths are comprehended by the one grand Truth Samyagjnanam that is revealed by one and the same method of ‘ Adhyaropa-Apavada ’. For we have the following dialogue in the Mundaka Upanishad (Verses 3-6) between Shaunaka, a householder and the sage Angiras,

Saunaka, a great grihasta, having duly approached Angiras, questioned him “What is that, O Bhagavan which being known, all this becomes known.”

To him he said “There are two sorts of knowledge to he acquired. So those who know the Brahman say; namely, Para and Aparai.e., the higher and the lower.

 Of these, the Apara is the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda, the siksha, the code of rituals, grammar, niruktachhandas and astrology. Then the para is that by which the immortal is known.

That which cannot be perceived, which cannot be seized, which has no origin, which has no properties, which has neither ear nor eye, which has neither hands nor feet, which is eternal, diversely manifested, all-pervading, extremely subtle, and undecaying, which the intelligent cognized as the source of the Bhutas. 

Method of Upanishads to Convey Ultimate Reality: Brahman

Here the Upanishad is clearly laying out the knowledge of Brahman as that higher knowledge or para-vidya by which all is known. This knowledge is deemed beyond all forms, perception and is immortal – that is without decay. Now this reality being out of the scope of perception cannot be known by senses or even thought or rationality. For we have the following

“The eye does not go there, nor speech, nor mind. We do not know That. We do not know how to instruct one about It. It is distinct from the known and above the unknown. We have heard it so stated by preceptors who taught us that.” (Kena Upanishad, Verse 3)

(Kena Upanishad, Verse 3)

Commenting on the Kena Upanishad verse 3 quoted above, Shankara clarifies why Brahman, the ultimate reality cannot be known by the senses and the mind.

“Just as fire that burns and enlightens things does not either enlighten or burn itself, so the mind, which wills and determines in respect of external objects, cannot will or determine in respect of its self, because its Atman is also the Brahman. A thing is cognised by the senses and the mind. We do not, therefore, know the Brahman, because it cannot be an object of perception to these”

1. Neti, Neti: Brahman Cannot be Taught by Any Positive Teaching

Since the ultimate reality or Brahman cannot be an object of senses or mind as stated above, the Upanishads cannot teach it by any positive instruction like Brahman is like this or that. Shankara says,

“We do not, therefore, know what the Brahman is like, so as to allow us to enlighten the disciple about the Brahman. Whatever can be perceived by the senses, it is possible to explain to others by epithets denoting its class, its attributes and modes of activity; but the Brahman has no attributes of class, etc. It, therefore, follows that it is not possible to make the disciple believe in the Brahman by [positive] instruction.” (Kena Up, Verse 3, Commentary by Shankara)

2. Agama: Traditional Way of Teaching the Ultimate Reality Found in the Upanishads Revealed by Shankara

But it is the contention of the Upanishads that this reality can be known when taught by a teacher who knows the Brahman and the traditional way of teaching it. According to Shankara, the traditional way of teaching is called Agama and it is a method of negation rather than a method of positing. Let’s see how Shankara weilds the Agama in his commentary to the above verse 3, quoted from Kena Upanishad. First he stresses on the prime importance of Agamas:

“Considering that the previous portion of the text leads to the conclusion that it is impossible by any means to instruct one about the Atman, the following exceptional mode is pointed out. Indeed it is true that one cannot be persuaded to believe in the Brahman by the evidence of the senses and other modes of proof; but it is possible to make him believe by the aid of Agamas (Scriptures). Therefore the preceptor recites Agamas for the purpose of teaching about the Brahman and says: ‘It is something distinct from the known and something beyond the unknown, etc.” …………………………………………(Kena Up, Verse 3, Commentary by Shankara)

Here he starts employing the method of Agama (method of negation):

“That is certainly distinct from the known. ‘The known,’ means ‘whatever is the object of special knowledge; and as all such objects can be known somewhere, to some extent and by some one and so forth, the whole (manifested universe) is meant by the term ‘the known;’ the drift is, that the Brahman is distinct from this. But lest the Brahnan should be confounded with the unknown, the text says: ‘It is beyond the Unknown.’ ‘Aviditat’ means ‘something opposed to the known; ………………………

Whatever is known is little, mortal and full of misery and, therefore, fit to be abandoned. Therefore when it is said that Brahman is distinct from the Known, it is clear that it is not to be abandoned. Similarly, when the Brahman is said to be distinct from the Unknown it is in effect said that the Brahman is not fit to be taken. It is to produce an effect that one seeks for a cause. Therefore there can be nothing distinct from the knower, which the knower could seek for, with any benefit. Thus, by saying that the Brahman is distinct from both the Known and the Unknown and thus disproving its fitness to be abandoned or to be taken, the desire of the disciple to know anything distinct from Self (Atman) is checked.……………………………”

“For, it is clear that none other than one’s Atman can be distinct from both the Known and the Unknown; the purport of the text is that the Atman is Brahman.

(Kena Up, Verse 3, Commentary by Shankara)

The highlighted lines of this brilliant commentary by Shankara clinches the central method of negation employed by Upanishads and himself. In this case the Kena Upanishads negate all movements of the mind to know anything as an object and also to not consider Brahman as an Unknown so that the mind stops seeking for the cause of all perceived objects (phenomenal world) it perceives. By freezing all directions in which the mind can move, Shankara in his commentary to this Upanishad’s verse angles back to the knower who is wanting to know. As Shankara says so astutely, “there can be nothing distinct from the knower which the knower coud seek for, with any benefit”

This whole example shows how Shankara in his commentary to this verse from Kena Upanishad, through negation, focuses on the knower as the primary reality of oneself as Atman. And all this can be done only by the knower of the traditional method of teaching called Agama. For as Shankara says at last in his commentary to the same passage:

“The preceptor next says how this meaning of the text, that the Atman of all, marked by no distinguishing attributes, bright and intelligent, is the Brahman, has been traditionally handed down from preceptor to disciple.”

“And Brahman can be known only by instruction from preceptors and not by logical disquisitions, nor by expositions, intelligence, great learning, penance or sacrifices, etc. We have beard this saying of the preceptors who clearly taught us the Brahman.

3. Brahman: That Which the Mind Cannot Know

In the previous verse 3 of Kena Upanishad Shankara discusses how the primary reality is not the known or the unknown but the knower or the knowing Self – Atman. However, this does not complete the matter. For further, in verse 5 of the Kena Upanishad, the mind as knower is negated too and Atman or real Self is decalred to be more interior to the mind. In fact Atman lights up the activities of the mind.

What one cannot think with the mind, but by which they say the mind is made to think, know That alone to be the Brahman, not this which (people) here worship. (Kena Upanishad, verse 5)

(Kena Upanishad, verse 5)

Shankara’s commentary on this reads:

Com.—‘Manah,’ ‘mind.’ By the word ‘Manah’ here, both mind and intelligence are meant. ‘Mauah’ means ‘that by which one thinks.’ The mind is equally connected with all the sensory organs, because its sphere includes all external objects. The Sruti says: ‘Desire, volition, deliberation, faith, negligence, boldness, timidity, shame, intelligence, fear, all these are mind.’ The modes of activity of the mind are desire, etc. By that mind, none wills or determines that intelligence which enlightens the mind, because as enlightener of the mind, that is the mind’s controller, the Atman being in the interior of everything, the mind cannot go there. The capacity of the mind to think exists, because it is enlightened by the intelligence shining within, and it is by that, that the mind is capable of activity. Those who know the Brahman say that the mind is pervaded by the Brahman. Therefore know that to be the Brahman which is the Atman, the interior intelligence of the mind.

4. Agama as Attributing False Superimposition (Adhyaropa) Followed by Negation (Apavada)

The last few paragraphs were an attempt to lead the reader gradually to the true method of teaching reality adopted by Upanishads, and known only to a teacher of the true tradition, or Agama. As one can appreciate by now that the method is not just negation but what is called superimposition followed by negation or adhyaropa-apavada. In this, first the attribute-less reality is ‘falsely’ provided with an attribute which it actually does not possess (superimposes/adhyaropa) and then when a seeker grasps that subtle reality, the teacher negates this subtle reality (apavada) and leads the seeker to a further subtler reality until one comes to the subtlest and ultimate reality which cannot be negated further. In the example of the Kena Upanishad verses 3 and 5 that I took above, one can see how Shankara applies this method by

  • First negating the reality as something known or unknown and focusing on the reality as the knower /Knowing self as Atman
  • Negating even the knower or knowing self in the next step and showing that the Atman is even beyond that.

The Atman-Brahman is finally intuited by the mind in a flash when this teaching is presented to a qualified seeker. This is because the final reality is self-shining. As Shankara says in his commentary, “The capacity of the mind to think exists, because it is enlightened by the intelligence shining within, and it is by that, that the mind is capable of activity.” Once all false superimpositions on this shining entity are negated, the self shining truth reveals itself. As an analogy, one may say that when the clouds that were covering the sun drift apart, the sun reveals itself. Only the clearing of clouds is required. No effort needs to be nade by anyone to show a seeker the sun as the sun is self revealing. All that was required was to remove the clouds. In ignorance, just like the clouds hide the sun, we superimpose various notions on the Self/Reality like it is the mind or body or intellect or God etc. The work of a teacher weilding the teachings of the Upanishads is to negate one by one all the false attributions we have imposed on our true Self and when the last one is removed, the Self shines and reveals itself by it’s own accord. This is the method followed by the Upanishads and followed by Shankara to reveal truth.

One can now see how one cannot come to the Ultimate reality/Brahman by any process of the mind, like logic, reasoning or rationality, because the final reality is beyond the mind. In this article I just took up two verses from the Kena Upanishad along with Shankara’s commentary to demonstrate how the process of Agama works to communicate the reality beyond mind to a seeker. In the actual teaching methodology or Agama, many more examples are used from various verses of the Upanishads to lead a seeker from the gross phenomenal reality he perceives as truth, to that which is Advaita – Non-dual, without any duality, partless, without phenomena.

I shall be discussing the process of adhyaropa-apavada in greater detail in a future article. Meanwhile one may read part 3 of this series here – Prasthana Traya: The Triple Canonical Base of Vedanta Scriptures Followed by Shankara – Part 3/4: Bhagavad Gita


  • [1] – The Method of the Vedanta by Satchidanandendra Swami, Translated by A. J Alston, page 9
  • [2] – The Essential Vedānta: A New Source Book of Advaita Vedānta, page 2
  • [3] Ibid, page 3
  • [4] – Ibid, page 4
  • [5] – Ibid, page 5
  • [6] – H. B. Smith, Faith and Philosophy Essay i, p. 5
  • [7] – K. F. Vocab. Philos., p. 388
  • [8]The Method of the Vedanta by Satchidanandendra Swami, Translated by A. J Alston, pages 26-27
  • [9] – K.F. Vocab. Philos., p. 505

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