The 'commentary' on the Taittiriyopanisad is entitled Taittiriyaka-vidya-prakasah, that is 'the exposition of the teaching of the Taittiriyopanisad'. It is to be seen that almost all Upanisads propound the unity of the self with Brahman in two ways, firstly by negation and secondly by the mode of indicative descriptions. Both these methods are to be met with in the Taittiriyopanisad. Indeed this Upanisad is the fountainhead for both methods which converge to the same point in the famous declaration: 'brahmavidyapnoti param' (the knower of Brahman attains the supreme).
What Vidyaranya has accomplished in this independent works is best described as a 'meta-commentary', being not a mere gloss on the existing commentary, but an independent exercise in interpretation of the Upanisads themselves guided at every step by the turns in the commentary of Sankaracarya. In sum it may be viewed as the medieval counterpart of modern academic interpretations of the Upanisads vis-à-vis the exegesis of Sankaracarya.
The prevalent view is that Vidyaranya and the Vedic commentator Sayana were brothers. It is further believed that 'Vidyaranya' (lit. forest of learning) is the ascetic name of Madhavacarya, the very powerful minister in the Kingdom of Vijayanagar which came into existence under his aegis in 1336 A.D. He renounced the world when yet at the height of his worldly powers and became an ascetic, who was the thirty-third occupant of the prestigious seat of Sankaracarya at Srngeri.
It is said very often that Advaita philosophy reflects the general mood of the Indian people. Even when they do not intellectually subscribe to this school of thought, they are drawn into using its terminology as most expressive of their cherished beliefs. This is so because the basis of all understanding regarding life in the world is formulated in the light of a dichotomy obtaining between what is merely pleasing (preyas) and what is good (sreyas).
This separation runs through all modes of thought, such as monistic, monotheistic or dualistic. The sense of distinction between 'what is agreeable' and 'what should be preferred' pervades the ethos of India and can be recognized immediately in the mood of detachment, or withdrawal, or renunciation, which characterizes it. It can be readily understood that a demand for discrimination comes with the built-in implication that one sphere is to be given up in order to appropriate the other.
The ideal of renunciation as a form of knowledge has been thematized only in the Advaita philosophy of Sankaracarya, the well-known ascetic thinker and writer of the 8th-9th century A.D. All other schools of thought subscribe to it as a high ideal but it is not integral to their philosophy. Sankaracarya, on he other hand, has placed it in the very heart of his writings on the unity of self (atman) with ultimate reality (Brahman). The sphere of the world, together with its knowing subject- the 'I' –consciousness- is as if superimposed on this unity and needs to be 'cancelled' before Brahman as bliss may be realized as an existential experience.
This supreme discrimination between that which is the area of the not-self and that which leads toward true knowledge or self-realization is called renunciation. It should not be misunderstood to be an act of physical withdrawal from the world, which anyway is not perhaps the best mode of denying the world. The very demand of the world to be considered real and final is called Maya in Advaita philosophy; this dimension of Maya can be offset only by an equally powerful process of metaphysical cancellation, a renouncing of layers of false identification, so that the veil may be set at naught. The inspiration for this trans-natural way of understanding the human condition comes from the Upanisads, which speak in the world in search of happiness to focus it on the quest for the very source of Bliss itself. This is how Sankaracarya has developed his exegeses on the Upanisads and his major work the commentary on the Vedanta-sutra.
The commonly known theory of Maya is presented by Sankaracarya in a short preamble to the commentary on the Vedanta sutra. Sankaracarya begins by delineating clearly two disparate spheres: consciousness and the object of consciousness. It is well-known, he writes, that the knower and the known which have for their spheres or contents the notions of 'I' and what is given to it from without, so to speak as 'you' (as the other), respectively, are totally opposed to each other, as light is to darkness. Yet in ordinary usage they are being constantly fused together, as for example, in the statements, "It is I" or "It is mine". That this coupling together is intelligible at all is due to the (unconscious) operation of a kind of superimposition of one on the other which obliterates, phenomenally speaking, the discontinuity altogether. The body and the I consciousness become one or even there is identification with persons in the world, like sons etc. To take an obvious example of superimposition: a piece of rope is mistaken as a snake, evoking fear in the heart of the observer. This illusion, which will be known as error only upon its cancellation, is a case of superimposition of one thing on another. Thus is the self hidden under the identity of the I-consciousness? This obscuration is not apparent but the identification of the I-consciousness with its body ("It is I") or with things in the world ("It is mine") are matters of common experience. It is an error which pervades all human experience. Sankaracarya's definition of this error may be translated into words:
The cognition into an object something different which is of the nature of memory of something, which has been seen elsewhere.
In other words, the real object is 'falsely' cognized in terms of something previously seen; this cognition is subsequently cancelled when recognition takes place of the real object. The nature of this error is thus indeterminable in the sense that it can be called neither real (because of the possibility of cancellation) not unreal (because something as such is certainly cognized). Sankaracarya at this point in his writing makes a passing reference to other theories of error as inadequate. The reason for grouping together very divergent theories regarding the nature of error is that the admission of this distinction itself is reason enough for stating that error is indeterminable. The aim of the author has been to underscore the presence o two levels within the cognitive structure, one real and the other unreal; this is sufficient reason for the argument in favour of a process of superimposition. The author suggests that it seems almost natural for the nature of the real to remain hidden because the unreal, as it were, makes it determinable in its own form of unreality. This figurative ascription (in the form of 'as if') may be called Maya, which simultaneously hides the real and projects the unreal.
Sankaracarya's intention in the preamble is to give an explanation of he experience of a diverse world, since the Vedanta sutra is going to propound Brahman as the one and only reality. On Brahman is superimposed the dimension of the unreal world which appears as a reality by itself. On the cognitive scale, Brahman as the ever-abiding Witness-self remains hidden because the' I-consciousness is superimposed on it. The relevance of this entire discussion about the cognitive structure may be questioned by an opponent who asks: "If the witness-self aloof from the entire range of the categories of thought as non-object then how can it be superimposed upon? Moreover if you also say that the witness-self is self-evident then where is the possibility of confounding it with something else?"
Sankaracarya's resolution of this problem brings him to the core of his preamble. He writes, "But the witness-self (atman) is not entirely a non-object. It is the object of consciousness, but only in the sense that it is the ground, which is given in immediate apprehension. Therefore the nature of superimposition or Maya, the stuff of which it is, so to speak, made, is ignorance. Due to ignorance a veiling takes place. The way to knowledge is by way of removing this veil of ignorance, which is called avidya."
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