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Re: avidyA and advaita

From: Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian (
Date: Mon Jul 12 1999 - 10:41:12 PDT

[ Forwarded to the Bhakti List by me, Mani. Please note: some abstruse details
  of Vedanta philosophy ensue below. Please skip if not interested. Also please
  note that Ramakrishnan is just presenting the Advaita viewpoint objectively,
  and does not intend to start an argument. He notes how one can conclude for
  or against this concept of adviyA. ]

Mani Varadarajan <> wrote:

> Ramakrishnan or Vidyasankar, can you give us a brief
> overview of what avidyA is, its place in Advaita, and
> some of the problems in understanding it?

Mani, I attempted to be brief, but it turned out quite long. If you
feel this would be of interest to the bhakti list, please forward it.

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R: Sri rAmAnuja
Sh: Sri sha.nkara
Su: Sri sureshvara
V: Sri vedAntadeshika

NaiSi: naishhkarmyasiddhi
TUBhVa: taittirIya upanishhad bhAshhya vArtika of Su
SVa: sambandha vArtika of Su
BUBhVa: br^ihadAraNyaaka upanishhad bhAshhya vArtika of Su

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[Apologies for the somewhat long mail]

I'll give a summary of the my understanding of avidyA as
expounded in the works of Su. It is a well known fact that on
most of the important points (like avidyA) Su follows Sh closely.
I will not be giving the original Sanskrit verses. I will assume
that the interested people have access to the original texts.

The thread of reasoning follows the following steps:

1. By the method of anvaya-vyatireka (agreement-difference), the
three states are examined. It is shown that it is impossible to
establish the existence of any real entity other than the self.
The second chapter of the NaiSi of Su contains an elaborate

2. avidyA is not established by any of the means of knowing
(pramANA-s). Su says that the person who would want to establish
avidyA by any pramANa would also see the darkness in the interior
of a cave with a lamp (TUbhVa 2.177). avidyA does not stand the
scrutiny of the pramANa-s (SVa 2.181-182).

3. So what is avidyA and why is avidyA predicated? Su raises the
pUrvapaxa that if it is admitted that brahman has avidyA, then it
is a defect. And if brahman is free from avidyA, then knowledge
which results in moxa, is futile (SVa 2.175-176). The answer is
that avidyA is predicated based purely on experience (anubhava)
and thus involves no contradictions. How? As seen from point 1,
the existence of real entities other than the self is impossible
to establish. However, empirically, the world is experienced and
hence avidyA is predicated. The analogy Su gives is the blueness
of the sky resembling the petals of a blue lotus (BUBhVa

My explanation of this analogy is as follows: It is already known
that ether does not possess the quality of color. However, the
blue color of the sky (ether) is seen and accepted. Thus the
acceptance of the blue color is based on anubhava only. In other
words, we have a case of abhAsa. The existence of avidyA is

>From the standpoint of brahman, avidyA does not make any sense
(SVa 2.176-177). Just like the blueness of the sky, it is accepted
on anubhava only. Su says that any other position involves a
prolixity of assumptions, each of which involve some
contradiction or the other. For advaitins only avidyA is assumed
and that is solidly based on anubhava (SVa 2.182-183).

The following are important observations:

1. Note that the predication of avidyA comes after the process of
anvaya-vyatireka. avidyA is not some ontological category which
is established by means of dialectics, as was attempted by some
later advaitins.

2. Obviously advaita and vishishhTadvaita part ways right at
point 1 given above. Both systems use anubhava, etc to arrive at
diametrically opposite conclusions right here. The reason for
this can be found by examining some pertinent points made by R.
More attention is paid these days to V's shatadUshhaNi, which
builds and sometimes expands on R's original arguments. I have
somewhat glibly stated point 1. It is a useful exercise to go
through the arguments of Sh and Su and examine them in the light
of R's objections. IMO, at the end of this exercise, one accepts
either R's position or Sh's position. If the latter is accepted,
Sh's arguments on avidyA follow naturally. If the former is
accepted, almost all the objections in the shatadUshhaNi follow

Of course, some of the objections by V is also related to the
expositions found in texts like ishhTasiddhi and so on. I don't
hold the view of Sri Satchidanandendra Saraswati that expositions
by later advaitins are to a large extent useless. I definitely
feel they have their place, but IMO the essential simplicity of
Sa is not found among later advaitins. So I want to concentrate
only on Sa and Su.

3. I will note here that the examination of the three states is
extremely important in understanding Sh and Su. Understanding the
position of avidyA in advaita is very closely tied to this. I'll
write this up in detail in the next few months, and will be
posting it on the advaita list. For those who are impatient, the
following references should be useful:

A. anvaya-vyatireka:

1. NaiSi, chapter 2.
2. Wilhelm Halbfass, "Studies in Kumarila and Sankara," Studien
Zur Indologie und Iranistik, Monographie 9, Reinbek 1983.
3. Wilhelm Halbfass, "Tradition and Reflection: Explorations in
Indian thought," SUNY Albany, 1991.

B. Some important references to avidyA in Su's works:

TUBhVa 2.170-180, SVa 175-191, BUbhVa 1.4.328-347, NaiSi 2.50-53,
NaiSi 3.5-8, 3.57-72.

C: Examination of three states:

1. Most comprehensive treatment given in mANDUkya and gauDapAda
kArikA bhAsshya-s (for chapters 1, 2 and 3) of Sa.
2. See also brahmasUtra bhAshhya for sUtra-s 3.2.1-10, 2.2.28-29
(the latter is incidentally one of the most misunderstood
writings of Sa).
3. bhAshhya to bR^ihadAraNyaka 4.2-4.3.19. Su's vArtika-s on

D: Some useful books and translations:

1. Swami Satcidanandendra Saraswati, "Essays on Vedanta,"
Adhyatma Prakasha Karyalaya, Holenarsipur, 1971.
2. R. Balasubramanian, "The Taittiriyopanishad Bhashyavartika of
Suresvara," University of Madras, 1984.
3. T. M. P. Mahadevan, "The Sambandha Vartika of Suresvaracarya,"
University of Madras, 1958.

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