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Apaurusheyatvam of Sruti (was Re: non-reality of free will)

From: Vidyasankar Sundaresan (
Date: Fri May 09 1997 - 16:23:48 PDT

I'm sending this mail to both the advaita and the bhakti mailing lists.
On the advaita list, we have been having a discussion on the philosophical
status of grace and free will from an advaitic perspective, which has
progressed into a discussion on the status of Sruti. The bhakti list has
been having discussions on the role of grace and individual effort, which
again harks back to free will. My apologies for this cross-fertilization,
but these are universal topics and I think we could all benefit from an
exchange of views. 

The traditional advaita position on the status of Sruti needs to be
clarified. This will be a long post (apologies again), examining briefly
all the different philosophical positions about it, and how Sankaran
advaita synthesizes some of these and rejects other arguments. 

advaita vedAnta does not require you to suspend any disbelief in a human
agency for the transmission of Sruti. What is denied is the view that
Sruti is of human or divine authorship. 

All mImAmsaka and vedAnta schools concede that the mantra-drashTas (the
seers of the Vedic hymns) were human beings, although their status as
rshis exalts them over ordinary human beings. Human agency is admitted,
but only for *transmitting* the Vedas, not for *composing* them. 
Therefore, it is not useful to say that the "experience" of the seers
validates the Sruti. The Sruti is always valid, irrespective of the human
experience that revealed it. We might draw emotional strength from some
human experience, but we should be very careful before putting such human
experience on a philosophical pedestal that guarantees the truth of Sruti.
This holds true as much for vasishTha and viSvAmitra, as for the Alvars
and the nAyanmArs, and other saints of the various traditions. 

The cArvAkas and the non-vaidika schools say that human beings composed
what passes for Sruti, and therefore deny its claim to apaurusheyatvam.
The nyAya and vaiseshika schools try to infer the existence of a God from
a typical teleological argument known to most religions, and then say that
such a creator God must have composed Sruti. This argument is rejected
by mImAmsakas and vedAntins. The classical yoga and sAmkhya schools are of
two types each - a theistic one and a non-theistic one. The theistic
school of yoga is represented by patanjali's yoga sUtras, which considers
God (ISvara) as the original guru, and by extension can be considered to
have taught the Sruti to the first r.shis. Note that teaching Sruti
does not argue for an authorship of the Sruti by this God. But none of the
yoga and sAm.khya schools seem to have a fixed opinion about the
authorship of Sruti. 

It is only the mImAmsakas and vedAntins who have to take a firm position
about it, because they make it part of their business to do a total
exegesis of the Vedas. The mImAmsakas argue against the contention of the
nyAya and vaiseshika schools that the existence of God as a first cause
can be inferred. They hold that Sruti is co-eternal with creation, but
they also hold that there is no need to postulate a Creator God. Creation
itself keeps repeating in cycles, and Sruti is also revealed to the 
mantra-drashTas in each cycle. In the intermediate period of dissolution,
Sruti continues to exist, in some unseen potential form. It does not have
to be created anew, and therefore does not require any agency by an
all-knowing, all-powerful God. This rather severe non-theism of the
mImAmsakas is also motivated by a desire to deny that there can be any
Omniscient beings. This is necessary for the mImAmsaka because he wants to
argue that the doctrines of the Buddhists and the Jains (which are traced
to Omniscient beings by their followers) are faulty. Rather than denying
that the Buddha or Mahavira were Omniscient, the mImAmsaka denies that
there exist *any* Omniscient Beings. Therefore, he also denies that there
is a creator God who knows everything. The mImAmsaka is therefore
non-theistic in one sense, but he is not an atheist. The various Vedic 
gods and goddesses are considered to exist, although they also undergo
birth and death with each cycle of creation. The form of each god is
defined by the mantra invoking that god. In practical terms, this
develops into a concern for correct pronunciation and tonality in reciting
the Vedic mantras. Words are therefore endowed with greater significance
than mere conventional meaning. The idea that the form of a god is defined
by the mantra is an ancient one, and this explains why and how the Vedas
have been so faithfully transmitted over the millenia. 

The mImAmsaka position about the non-authoredness of Sruti is accepted
almost in toto by the different vedAnta schools. Where they part company
is in the existence or otherwise of an Omniscient Being. In Sankaran
advaita, the argument starts by pointing out that nobody, however much he
argues, can deny the Atman. Now, for those who accept Sruti to be
valid, this Atman is described ultimately in 'neti, neti' terms.
This Atman is also Brahman, by the testimony of the same Sruti. To the
mImAmsaka who accepts Sruti as an infallible authority, the advaitin
points out that even according to that same Sruti, the existence of an
Omniscient Brahman cannot be denied *on mImAmsa grounds*. Such an
Omniscient Being is saguNa brahman, no doubt, and when advaita argues for
the ultimate unreality of saguNa brahman, this argument is based upon the
fallacy of assuming that brahman is always saguNa. In other words, brahman
is not denied, but the saguNatvam is denied by advaita. This argument is
on completely different grounds and has completely different implications
as compared to the mImAmsaka's position. 

Now, what about Sruti? The advaitin agrees with the mImAmsaka that Sruti
is unauthored, i.e. apaurusheya. The advaitin also argues against the
nyAya-vaiseshika position that an ISvara can be inferred and that such an
ISvara is the author of Sruti. This argument is rejected, because rather
than first accepting the validity of Sruti, and then formulating an
argument about God, this view first accepts the validity of a logic based
on human perception and inference, then infers a God, and then assumes
that such a God *must be* the author of Sruti. Some nyAya authors go
further, and say that this Sruti itself also confirms the existence of an
Omniscient creator God. Now, according to the nyAya-vaiseshika view, the
validity of Sruti becomes dependent upon the validity of an inferred
ISvara, and if another argument can prove the nyAya inference of ISvara to
be faulty (which is rather easy to do, in my opinion), then the validity
of Sruti is also lost. This is unacceptable both to the mImAmsaka and the
vedAntin, of any sub-school. 

The mImAmsA has already shown that the nyAya argument is faulty, but it
upholds the eternal validity of Sruti, and rejects the ISvara that is
inferred by the nyAya. advaita (and other schools of vedAnta) agree that
the nyAya argument is faulty. However, the fault lies in the fact that the
existence of an ISvara cannot be validly inferred on any grounds. This
does not mean that ISvara does not exist. For advaita, ISvara is saguNa
brahman; for other schools of vedAnta, brahman IS ISvara. Why does
advaita accept ISvara as saguNa brahman? Because Sruti says so. In other
words, the validity of Sruti is first acknowledged by the advaitin, and
then the existence of a God is accepted. To say "the sacred book tells
me that God exists, and therefore I accept God, and also to say that the
sacred book is sacred because God composed it" - this is a circular
argument that is very attractive to most people, and is found in the
theology of most religions, but it is not acceptable to any rigorous
mImAmsaka or vedAntin. 

The mImAmsaka and advaitin have already parted company with respect to the
existence of an ISvara. Now, what about the authorship of the Vedas by
this ISvara? Are the Vedas strictly apaurusheya, so that not even the
Omniscient ISvara is accepted as an author? Or is advaita prepared to
relax this argument and say that ISvara is either the author or the 
teacher of the Vedas to the first r.shis? 

The answer to this is complicated. Orthodox advaita does not look at Sruti
in isolation from other aspects of reality. Yes, Sruti is apaurusheya, and
ISvara (saguNa brahman) should not be called its author. Neither can the
r.shis be called authors, although they were instrumental in revealing
Sruti to humankind. The advaitin does not also object to the theistic yoga
view that ISvara can be considered to be the first teacher, and the idea
that ISvara is a guru is well accepted among orthodox advaita circles,
both in the figure of Lord Krishna, who teaches on the battlefield, and
the figure of Lord Dakshinamurthy, who teaches enigmatically through
silence. Besides, the SvetASvatara depicts brahman as imparting the vedas
to brahmA, the creator at the beginning of the cycle of creation (yo
brahmANam vidadhAti pUrvam, yo vai vedAmSca prahiNoti tasmai). This is
only one of the many features where advaita and classical yoga find common
ground, although they differ in other details.

How does advaita interpret the upanishad when it says that the Vedas were
"breathed out" by brahman, just like everything else in this universe?
This is interpreted by advaita commentators to mean that since brahman is
acknowledged to be the source of all creation, Sruti also has its source
in brahman. This may seem like admitting some divine authorship of the
Vedas, but it is not so. This is because side by side with saying that all
creation is dependent upon brahman, advaita also strongly denies that
creation is a real event, or that brahman is a real creator. Thus, 
although brahman "breathes out" the universe, brahman is not a real
creator. Similarly, although brahman "breathes out" Sruti, brahman is not
a real author of Sruti. 

Just as the universe "is", so is Sruti. When the reality of the Atman as
brahman is known, there is no more differentiation, i.e. there is no more
duality. So, according to advaita, one cannot even say "this is Sruti,
this other is me, who recites Sruti, or this third other is you, who does
not know Sruti." The mANDUkya upanishad describes the turIya state
metaphorically as "prapancopaSama" - a state where prapanca vanishes. Just
as the multiplicity vanishes, so does the perception that Sruti is
something out there to be heard and studied. When this is known, just as
questions about creation do not arise, so also, the questions about the
author(s) of Sruti do not even arise. Paradoxically, however, it is
through hearing and studying Sruti that such a conclusion is reached. 

However, this paradox does not bother the true advaitin, although it
bothers other vedAntins. The dvaitin is able to maintain a position closer
to that of the mImAmsA, because although he accepts hari as the Omniscient
ISvara, in his view, everything is eternally distinct from hari and from
everything else. Thus Sruti continues to be eternally valid and
unauthored, either by ISvara or by human beings. I am not very conversant
with how viSishTAdvaita finds a solution to this. Is nArAyaNa the source
of everything, including Sruti? If so, can Sruti still be considered to be
unauthored? One very respected viSishTAdvaita author, vedAnta deSika,
wrote a treatise called seSvara (sa + ISvara) mImAmsA, where these topics
are discussed, and I'm sure the standard position of that school is to be
found in that work. To sum up, the advaitin position is, "Yes, Sruti is
unauthored, and its validity does not depend upon the seers who first saw
it. Also, Sruti is 'breathed out' by brahman, but this is only a
metaphorical way of speaking, just as the entire universe was 'breathed
out' by brahman. Neither is brahman a creator, in the sense that creation
is a real event, nor is brahman an author, in the sense that any text must
have a real author." 

S. Vidyasankar