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The Scientific Approach of Shankara Vedanta

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Item Code: NAK371
Author: D.B. Gangolli
Publisher: Adhyatma Prakashan Karyalaya, Bangalore
Edition: 1997
Pages: 120 (21 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 8.0 inch X 5.0 inch
Weight 120 gm
Book Description

The Upanishads, when read perfunctorily, seem to be intended to teach something about what they call 'Brahman' or 7itman', about the universe, and the individual soul, but the varied expressions and style of exposition employed in them is so bewildering that one is apt to doubt whether they contain any system of thought uniformly propounding any definite doctrine or whether they adopt any dialectical method leading the seeker to the principle they propose to teach. The language and style adopted to teach Brahman is apparently very confusing. All these works team with various narratives, epigrams, symbolic expressions, metaphors and similes, which do not smack of any dialectical approach to Truth. True, we do meet with dialogues, conversations and discussions and debates sometimes; but everywhere it appears to be a display of dogmatic arguments and analogies. On the other hand, we find express statements like - This knowledge is not to be attained (or cannot be confuted by) reasoning'; This can be well-understood only when taught by another.'

The numerous commentaries embodying the conflicting interpretations of the several Bhashyakaras, whose followers are extant to this day, only confirm this impression. For any scholar skilled in exegetics might bring out any additional system of his own with impunity out of these utterances of the ancient sages, if only he could adduce cogent reasons to show that his system is consistently built. And no one can rule out the legitimacy of the ingress of any system or systems in the future, each one of them resting its structure on the foundation of consistency and even on some individual intuition and experience to be gained through spiritual discipline.

In these circumstances, it is most necessary to discover the unique doctrine and the distinctive technique or the method, if there be one at all, which governs all the modes of approach to Reality in these writings. If one could succeed in this attempt, that would be the source to provide the critical student of Vedanta with a clincher to help him out of this apparent maze.

Actuated by a curiosity to find out the truth of the matter, and prompted by an instinctive feeling that there must be some doctrine and some method peculiar to all the Upanishads, an attempt was successfully made for a diligent search in the Bhashyas of the great Shankara, the earliest Writer on Vedanta, whose commentaries are available even now. The introduction to his Sutra-Bhashya contains this unequivocal statement:

"In order to destroy this source of (all evil, one has to attain the knowledge of the unity of Atman. To this end, all the Vedantas (Upanishads), are begun."

The purport of this proposition is crystal-clear: All the Upanishads have the uniform purport of teaching the doctrine of the One Atman, on attaining whose knowledge, one's ignorance is wiped off for good. And another statement in the opening of the commentary on Vedanta Sutra 1-1-5, makes this equally unambiguous remark:-

"So far it has been concluded that Vedantic texts aim at producing the Intuition of Brahamatman (the Infinite Self); that they are syntactically construed as teaching the 'Brahm atman' as their one purport, and culminate in Brahman which is without any connection with something that has to be done."

This proposition means that the Upanishads serve the sole purpose of teaching the nature of the Self as Brahman in contradiction to the individual self, and that this Knowledge of the Infinite Self, precludes the possibility of any duty to be done after its attainment. Of course, this is to intimate that in Shankara's opinion. Upanishadic passages urging a person to do some religious work in order to attain some result have nothing to do with texts teaching the nature of the One Infinite Atman. This is in consonance with the previous statement in the Introduction which says that all Upanishads have the one purpose of teaching the doctrine of the unity of Self. But is this his individual opinion or has he the support of any traditional methodology for his view? Even supposing that he is supported by some tradition, how are we to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there have sprung up so many other Bhashyas each professing to inherit a tradition of its own and claiming to be the only correct interpretation of the Upanishads?

In the first place, there are Upanishadic texts proclaiming the unity of Brahman or Atman in the most unmistakable terms : "That which we perceive in front is the Immortal Brahman alone; that which is behind is Brahman (alone); to the right and to the left, is Brahman (alone); that which is spread out both below and above, is Brahman. All this universe is Brahman the best" (Mu. 2-2-11); "And now, (is) the instruction concerning Atman Itself. Atman alone is below, and Atman (alone) above, Atman (alone) behind, and Atman (alone) in front; Atman (alone) is to the right, and Atman (alone) to the left. All this is Atman alone." (Chh.), Secondly, one's misgivings about the dualists are laid at rest by these two Shlokas from Gaudapada, the traditional grand-preceptor of Shankara:-

"The dualists (who follow the Samkhya or Vaisheshika, Buddhists or Jains etc.) firmly cling to their respective systems and contradict each other. But this system is not contradicted by them. For non-duality is the only Reality, while duality is only its appearance. For them it is duality alone both ways (i.e. as Reality or appearance). Therefore this system is not contradicted by them."

As for the texts teaching the creation of multiplicity, Shankara himself quotes two traditional Shlokas from Gaudapada.- "As for the creation narrated variously by means of illustrations like clay, metal and sparks, it is (only) a device for leading (the seeker to the truth of Unity); there is no difference in whatever way (we look at the matter)."

(Shankara has adduced this verse in corroboration of his view that the effect (universe) is nothing other than the cause Brahman.

"When the individual soul awakes from the beginningless illusory dream-sleep, then he realizes his unborn sleepless, dreamless, non-dual nature."

[This is adduced to corroborate Shankara's position that the states of creation, sustentation and dissolution of the world. are all illusory and not real,

Two more examples may be cited to emphasize the fact that, according to Shankara's tradition, the Shrutis make use of empirical examples of cause and effect relation only to repudiate all real causality and to establish the Vedic non-dualism, their enunciation of Brahman as the cause of the birth, sustentation and dissolution of the world, being only a deliberate imputation of causal nature - a device to convince the critical enquirer that everywhere the so-called material cause is the only real entity imagined to appear in diverse ways like an actor on the stage.

"(Objection:-) Is not Brahman, devoid of sound etc., the cause of the Universe?

(Reply :-) Certainly; but the effect with sound and other characteristics never exists either before creation or even now except in its essential nature as the cause."

"Therefore it has to be concluded that just as ethers, like a jar- ether etc., are non-different from the universal ether, or just as mirage-water etc., are non-different from barren soil etc., being of the nature of appearing and suddenly disappearing and undefinable in their apparent nature, so also this diverse universe comprising things experienced and experiencers etc., does not exist apart from Brahman."

The above-mentioned citations from the Sutra Bhashya, not only give us an insight into the main doctrine stressed in all the Upanishads, but also disclose the method of approach adopted in those writings to teach the Absolute (Brahmatman). For, while the Absolute is strictly without a second, we see here the deliberate superimposition of causal nature to Brahman, as a device to teach unity, and the abrogation of this property of being a cause by effectively negating the existence of the effect apart from its material cause. As Shankara contends in his Bhashya (on 2-1-14): "This is an illustration used to teach the nature of Brahman. From the expression 'Vachlirambhanam' (made up of words) used here, we have to infer that in the case of what is illustrated also, the non-existence of all effects apart from Brahman (is meant)." Can it not be surmised from all this that Shankara is referring here to a traditional method common to all the Upanishads making use of this device of deliberate imputation of certain properties to the Absolute just to reveal its real nature, the imputation being subsequently negated when that purpose has been achieved ?



The Hindus have for ages looked upon the Vedas reverentially as the authoritative, divine and eternal sources of all-comprehensive and consummate human knowledge. The four Vedas, viz. Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, have been, according to tradition, divided into the Samhita or Mantra portion, the Brahmana portion and the Aranyaka portion, predominantly dealing with the aspects of religious rites or rituals, meditations and Intuitive Knowledge, respectively. These three sections of the Vedas are also popularly called 'Karma Kanda', 'Upasana Kanda' and 'Jnana Kanda', in that order, and the first two, viz. Karma and Upasana Kandas are empirical, while Jnana Kanda is metaphysical or transcendental in their approach in ascertaining Life's goal or purpose as well as the Ultimate Reality propounded by all religious faiths and schools of philosophy.

Although the Vedas apparently do not seem to contain any systematic development of teaching or doctrines to the uninitiated common run of people, there is an implicit graded method of instruction running in and through the Vedic literature if only it is elucidated or expounded by the knowledgeable teachers well-versed in the rich traditional methods handed down to posterity from time immemorial in a continuous lineage of illustrious teachers and their equally renowned pupils. Taking a general view, it can be said that the' Karma Kanda caters, in the main, to people who are too materialistic and sensuous in their approach to life's problems, the Upasana Kanda to more intellectual and erudite people and the Jnana Kanda to those with an ascetic bent of mind, who are pure in heart and seek nothing but Beatitude and real solace in this very life, Thus by an assiduous study of the Vedic texts under the guidance of an expert teacher an aspirant can achieve gradual progress in his spiritual way of life, finally culminating in the attainment of Self-Knowledge and Bliss here and now.

The word 'Vedanta' connotes the end portion of the Vedas, implying that it is the Knowledge par excellence to be gained at the end of a phased-out course of learning an ardent seeker of Truth has to undergo in accordance with the instructions contained in the three sections of the Vedas. The Upanishads are called 'Vedantas' partly because most of them are to be found at the end of the Vedas, i.e. in the Aranyakas, and partly because they contain the quintessence and the ultimate pronouncement of the central or basic philosophy of the Vedas.

Vedanta as a positive science founded on reason, Intuition and experience steers clear of all difficulties incidental to partial and parochial views of physical sciences, which thrive on, and have committed themselves to, an objective view of mind as well as matter, or of realistic philosophies, which aim at a critical view of the universe and try to generalise and harmonise the conclusions of the special sciences. It differs from idealistic systems which speculate on the basis of the laws of the intellect.

What is the Main Teaching of Vedanta?

The subject-matter of Vedanta is quite unlike that of any speculative philosophy. Vedanta does not set before itself the problem of explaining the universe by means of logical deduction or the task of widening the area of human knowledge by trying to harmonise the natural sciences as far as possible. Vedanta is not satisfied with partial views. Its view is comprehensive and is based on Intuition and conscious experience, leaving out no feature of Life in its totality. In fact, Vedanta delineates a sure path to discover the essence (Atman) of the Universe as a whole and convinces us that this realisation is possible here and now for everyone that .has the burning desire and unique capacity and qualifications for it.

The word 'Vedanta' itself is rarely used 'in the classical ten Upanishads, viz. Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Manndukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka, on which Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest exponent of Advaita Vedanta and world teacher, has written his famous Bhashyas or commentaries, which are acknowledged all the world over as the authoritative texts for Vedanta. In the Mundaka Upanishad (3-2- 6) it is stated: "Those who have perfectly ascertained the nature of the Entity revealed by Vedantic Intuition, the endeavouring aspirants whose mind had become purified through the Yoga of Sannyasa, they are freed from all circumscribing limitations, having become perfectly immortal at the ultimate end of life." Here the words 'Vedanta Vijnana' found in the Upanishad have been explained by Sri Shankara as 'Vedanta Janita Vijnana' - Intuition born from the teaching of the Vedantas. It is evident that Sri Shankara interprets the word 'Vedanta' in the sense of the Upanishads. In his Adhyasa Bhashya, which is an introduction to the Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Sri Shankara states: "In order to destroy this source of evil (Avidya or Nescience) all the Vedantas are begun so that the knowledge of the unity of Atman (the Self) may be acquired." Sri Shankara means to say that all the Upanishads unequivocally purport to teach the aspirants how to acquire the knowledge of the non-dual Self (Atman).

Two Sets of Teaching

The word 'Upanishad' is used with different meanings in Sanskrit, such as a doctrine, a name, meditation, profound secret or the highest secret of the Knowledge of the true nature of Brahman or Atman. Sri Shankara uses this word primarily in the sense of the Knowledge (Intuition) of Brahman (Atman) and in a secondary sense for the portion of the Vedas usually called by that name. The Upanishads contain two sets of teaching regarding Brahman or the Ultimate Reality, addressed to two different levels of the mind. To the highest grade of the aspirants belongs the one who has attained the mental equipoise necessary for entering upon a course of study enabling him to grasp the teaching imparted in the scriptures (Shruti). This qualification he may gain in this very life or he might possess an introvert mind as a result of disciplines observed in his previous births. This class of seekers comprises two grades again. The first needs only guidance in reminding him of the true nature of one's Self based on the utterances of the Shruti through an experienced adept who has himself experienced the truths of Vedanta. The second requires guidance for the contemplation of the spiritual steps through which he has ultimately to reach that same Self or Brahman. It is to this highest class of both these grades that the Upanishadic or Vedantic study will be of immense assistance and value.

The other set of Upanishadic teachings, according to Sri Shankara, consists of injunctions for the meditation of the so-called Apara or lower Brahman. This meditation is a mystical discipline quite different from the practice of contemplation as explained under Adhyatrna Yoga (dealt with in Chapter V of this book), which leads the seeker to direct realisation of Brahman in this very life. Like the meditations taught in the non-Hindu religions, the Upanishadic meditations on Brahman also assure eschatological benefits in Highest Heaven, here called the Brahma Loka, and this practice of meditation is to be mainly founded on faith and hope. The Upanishadic mysticism is perfectly rational in that it rests on the secure foundation of the proven results that can be experienced in this very life by seekers belonging to the highest class mentioned earlier.

Unique Teaching of Shankara Vedanta

The unique teachings of the Upanishads regarding Brahman (Atman) or the Ultimate Reality are not mere theories advanced by doctrinarians but statements of facts which can be verified and are verifiable by anyone. Hence Advaita Vedanta, according to Sri Shankara, propounds the Truth based on universal (Intuitive) Experience innate in every one and on a comprehensive, plenary view of Life in its entirety. Sri Shankara has declared in his Bhashyas that all the Upanishads have one purport of teaching the knowledge of the Unity of Atman (Atmaikatwa Vidya Pratipattaye). This is in concurrence with the teaching of the Upanishads themselves. For example, the Mandakya Upanishad says that Atman is Brahman (Ayamatma Brahma) and adds that Brahman which is unobjectiflable has to be 'realised solely by means of the concept of Atman' (Ekatma Pratyaya Saram). The Mundaka Upanishad declares that Brahman, which is the Light of lights, only the knowers of Atman can know (Tat Shubhram Jyothi Tadyat "Atmavidaha Viduhu'- Mun. 2-2-10). The Bhashya on that Upanishadic passage explains it thus: "Only those that follow the trail of the concept of Atman can know It and not those that pursue the concepts of external objects, for It is the brightest Light within." (“Te Atmavidaha Tadviduhu Atma Pratyaya Anusarinaha: Yasmat Param Jyothi Tastmat Ta Eva Tadviduhu Netare Bahyartha Pratyaya Anusairinaha" – Mun, Bh. 2- 2-10).




  Preface v
I Introduction 1
II Genuine Tenets of Vedanta and some Misconceptions About Them 7
III Rudiments of Vedantic Methodology 18
IV The Rationale of Vedantic Method 35
V The Method Applied in Upanishads - Agama & Tarka 39
VI Avidya and Maya 47
VII Being an Becoming 51
VIII Ishwara and Jiva 58
IX Jiva and The Real Atman 67
X Avasthatraya Viveka 71
XI Karana-karya Viveka 84
XII Vedanta Shastra-- The One and Only Means for Self-Knowledge 88
XIII Ekayana Prakriya 91
XIV Samanya - Vishesha Prakriya 94
XV Discipline and Goal 96
XVI Sadhanas 99
XVII Conclusions 104

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