ADVAITA AND SCIENCE – IV
SWAMI VIDYARANYA, THE GENIUS OF THE 14TH CENTURY
Swami Vidyaranya (14th century AD) needs no introduction to the world of Vedanta. His active contribution to various branches of learning and Advaita in particular is quite well known. The Panchadashi and the Jivanmukti viveka are two of his seminal works on Vedanta and the practice of spirituality. Of course his ‘sarvadarshanasangraha’ is an authoritative work on the various darshanas of the Indian thought.
His Panchadashi is a treatise on Advaita Vedanta and is a very widely studied text. The lucidity, profundity and dexterity in presenting the subject is a unique feature of Vidyaranya. He is exceptional in thinking up novel examples to put his point across.
In the sixth chapter, ‘ChitradeepaH’, Vidyaranya takes up the question of the nature of Maya. First, he states the nature of Maya, its lakshana:
न निरूपयितुं शक्या विस्पष्टं भासते च या ।
सा मायेन्द्रियजालादौ लोका: संप्रतिपेदिरे ॥ [6.141]
141. People understand that to be Maya which though clearly seen is at the same time beyond all determination, as in the case of magic.
स्पष्टं भाति जगच्चेदं अशक्यं तन्निरूपणम् ।
मायामयं जगत्तस्मात् ईक्षस्व अपक्षपातत: ॥ [6.142]
142. The world is clearly seen, but its nature defies definition. Be impartial, and regard the world as nothing but a delusion, the product of Maya.
One is reminded of the following Scriptural passages in connection with the above verse:
[मायामात्रमिदं द्वैतं, अद्वैतं परमार्थतः [mandukya kArikA/Upanishad 1.18]
(All this duality that is nothing but Maya, is but non-duality in reality.)
उपदेशादयं वादो ज्ञाते द्वैतं न विद्यते [ibid 1.19]
[….duality ceases to exist after realization]
निरूपयितुमारब्धे निखिलैरपि पण्डितै: ।
अज्ञानं पुरतस्तेषां भाति कक्ष्यासु कासुचित् ॥ [6.143]
143. Even if all the learned people of the world try to determine the nature of this world, they will find themselves confronted at some stage or other by ignorance.
[Here we see the ‘uncertainty principle’ and the ‘indeterminability’ of modern physics. That the scientists call the world a ‘mysterious’ entity is long before said by Vidyaranya. The fact of scientists only at best ‘describing’ the objective phenomena but not being able to ‘account for’ them is so clearly brought out by Vidyaranya above. In fact none can truly and conclusively ‘account for’ the world phenomenon. This is proclaimed by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: 15.3:
न रूपमस्येह तथोपलभ्यते नान्तो न चादिर्न च संप्रतिष्ठा ।
अश्वत्थमेनं सुविरूढमूलं असङ्गशस्त्रेण दृढेन च्छित्त्वा ॥
Its (the world’s) form is not perceived as such here, neither its end, nor its origin nor its existence. Having cut asunder this firm-rooted Ashvattha with the strong sword of dispassion….the Goal, Brahman, is to be sought after.]
देहेन्द्रियादयो भावा: वीर्येणोत्पादिताः कथम् ।
कथं वा तत्र चैतन्यं इत्युक्ते ते किमुत्तरम् ॥ [6.144]
144. Tell us, if you can, how the body and senses came out of the seed, or how consciousness was born in the foetus. What answers will you give to these questions?
वीर्यस्यैष स्वभावश्चेत् कथं तद्विदितं त्वया ।
अन्वयव्यतिरेकौ यौ भग्नौ तौ वन्ध्यवीर्यतः ॥ [6.145]
145. (The naturalist says): It is the nature of the seed to evolve into the body with the sense-organs and so forth. (Reply): What is the basis of your belief? You will perhaps say, application of the double method of agreement and difference. But it is not confirmed because in a barren woman, the seed produces nothing.
[Here Vidyaranya is questioning the general application of logic by people in determining the nature of things in the world. This logic is: ‘When the cause is present, the effect follows. In the absence of the cause, no effect emerges.’ When this logic is applied in the above case, despite the presence of the ‘seed’, no effect is seen to emerge when the seed is applied in a barren (infertile) woman. Many are the cases where child-wishing couples have subjected themselves to rigorous medical tests and have been told that there is no cause that could be pinpointed for their failure to get progeny. Bringing in karma will complicate matters further.]
न जानामि किमप्येतत् इत्यन्ते शरणं तव ।
अत एव महान्तोऽस्य प्रवदन्तीन्द्रजालताम् ॥ [6.146]
146. In the end you will have to say, ‘I do not know’. Therefore the wise declare this world to be like a magic show.
[This is exactly what one would ultimately say. And this is what the present day physicists have concluded. It is said that there are some thirty theories of ‘creation’ and scientists are not unanimous on an acceptable theory. The creation theories of the Upanishads too are not the final say in the matter; it is only a stop-gap arrangement introduced to take the aspirant forward. When the right maturity is attained by the aspirant, all talk of creation is dropped and the Ultimate Reality is presented as ‘prapanchopashamam’ (free of the created universe) as the Mandukya Upanishad does.]
147. What can be more magical than the fact that the seed in the uterus becomes a conscious individual, that it develops head, hands, feet and other organs, that it passes through the states of childhood, youth and old age and that it perceives, eats, smells, hears, comes and goes?
[Replies consisting of ‘genes’, ‘chromozomes’, etc are not final as these questions themselves are open to further questions on their why and wherefore. Again resorting to karma to decide these matters deepens the confusion. Why did this jiva do this karma? Because that was its svabhaava/nature. Why did that become its nature? And further, in order to do that karma, there must have been a body. How was this body acquired? By karma. But again the same question can be asked and no convincing reply will come forth. Ultimately if it is said, ‘It is due to Ishwara’s will that the jiva was created with a certain body’, the question ‘why did Ishwara create this particular body and not something else?’ Any reply putting the onus on either the jiva or Ishwara is bound to be fraught with problems. Ultimately someone will ask: Why did Ishwara create at all? He could have remained quiet. When such kind of maturity is seen in an aspirant, this reply would be given:
“Though Brahman can do very well without prakrti or purusa (Dependent
Realities), it prefers, in its infinite glory and inexorable will, ‘to
do with them’. Such dependence (apeksa) of Brahman on things which are
in themselves dependent on It, is no mark of inferiority or limitation’’
[A ‘statement’ on Tattvavada, sourced from a site:
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@ @ @ @
This ‘statement’ on Tattvavada very clearly translates into: ‘Brahma satyam jagan mithyA, jIvo Brahmaiva na aparaH’ (Brahman alone is Real and the world is unreal. The jiva, soul, is none other than Brahman) and implies ‘AtmasambandhI kimapi nAsti’ (There is nothing other than Atman).
An Advaitin would see the above ‘statement’ as largely depicting the essence of the Advaita Brahman. In Advaita, Brahman is One Only without a second in its absolute nature, Paramarthika. By the association of Maya, prakriti, the world is created. (The scripture is replete with statements proclaiming that ‘Brahman creates only with the instrumentality of Prakriti/Maya.) Yet, since this creation is only maayika, Brahman remains asanga always. The very accepting of the possibility of Brahman doing very well without prakriti or purusha (jiva) implies Its eternally asanga and essentially Advaita svabhAva. Again, accepting this possibility of Brahman being a ‘Great Stand-Alone’ results in the natural conclusion of a situation where the prakriti and jiva are not there. And Its ‘preference’ to ‘do with them’ is not difficult to explain as it is due to Brahman’s icchA. Brahman’s icchA and mAyA are one and the same. Advaita views the ‘dependents on It’ (paratantra) as what is/are superimposed on It and hence the substratum Brahman is not limited by the superimposed prakriti and the samsara born of it. Such a Brahman/Atman is not related to anything, in reality, is borne out by the above ‘statement.’ Again, the purport of the words ‘…. is no mark of inferiority or limitation’ of the above ‘statement’ is expressed by Sri Shankaracharya in the preamble to His Bhashya on the Brahmasutras thus:
//tatraivam sati yatra yadadhyAsaH, tatkRtena doSheNa guNena vaa aNumAtreNApi sa na sambadhyate…// [‘This being so, the locus (Atman/Brahman) is not affected in any way either by the merits or demerits of the things superimposed.’]
Thus, even though the language used to give expression to the ‘Brahman/jagat/jiva triad’ is different in the two schools, essentially they mean the same. Recognizing and accepting this would lead to harmony; the opposite is only acrimony. (This is one area where scholars could focus upon so as to work out a harmony.)
For a detailed study of the above and other topics, the following blog may be consulted:
We conclude this discussion by quoting the Panchadashi 6:
148. Like the human body carefully consider also a tiny fig seed. How different the tree is from the seed from which it grows! Therefore know all this to be Maya.
[The Chandogya Upanishad VI reference to the above example is of particular interest to this discussion.]
A brief resume:
In the foregoing we saw an illustration of the genius of Swami Vidyaranya. It is amazing to find that the quest of modern science, especially physics, is converging on the views stated by Sri Vidyaranya in the 14th century. It may be recalled that the blog post ‘Advaita and Science – II – A Vedantin-Scientist Speaks’ carries an observation of the revered Jnani. The present post presenting the views of Swami Vidyaranya can be seen to be in accordance with the Scripture confirming the conclusion that ‘one can at best describe the world phenomenon but attempting to account for it is impossible’. For, such is the elusive nature of Maya, the Shakti of Brahman.
The following excerpt from a paper presented could be studied for gaining greater understanding of the above in the context of modern science:
With reference to motion, time and space, there has been a lot of change from the
classical view. Space and time are no longer accepted as absolute. Relativistic
changes being infused into such concepts, the importance of the observing
consciousness becomes conspicuous. The new world view arising out of a shift in
paradigm replaced the certainties of classical Physics with probabilities. The search
for the absolute eternal first principles of the world is a scientific metaquestion, it
arises out of the compulsion of the scientific search for the absolute truth but it
transcends the scope of science since science is limited to the empirical framework
only. With the recognition of the role of the observer, modern science has become
more epistemic than mere objective. The integral and unified conception of reality
has been the most spectacular achievement of the new age scientific thinking.
Science, in a short, has stumbled upon a reality-shift, which necessitates a re-
evaluation of the scientific understanding in the light of the ancient wisdom of
The philosophy of Advaita begins with a reality-shift which is natural to its world-
view. The method it employs does not consist of mere observation and experiment,
unlike that in science. Instead, it puts the mechanism of experience itself to scrutiny
and examines the ontological status of the objects of experience. It evaluates the
world of phenomena vis-à-vis the field of consciousness and tries to comprehend the
place of the individual in it. The logical scrutiny is again substantiated by the
experience of a higher ontological order. In this, Advaita resembles the pure sciences
in so far as it accepts direct experience as the final source of knowledge,
anubhavavasanatvat brahmavijnanasya. The search begins with the things of
experience and culminates in self-realization. Vedanta declares that the entire
epistemic mechanism with its framework of pramana, prama and prameya, is only a
functional reality or vyavaharika satta. What is taken to be knowledge in the
empirical level is based on a deep-rooted cosmic ignorance which is ineradicable in
relative state of existence (tam etam avidyakhyam atma-natmanor itaretaradhyasam
adhikrtya sarve pramana-prameya- vyavahara, etc).
New paradigms necessarily give rise to a reality-shift. In a certain level of
consciousness what seems to be real appears false in a different level. With new
discoveries in science, new realities come to forefront. Science has not yet reached its
final goal. It is still in the making, undergoing rapid changes. But Advaita is not an
uncertain quest for some unknown reality. It is the absolute knowledge of the
ultimate reality manifesting in different levels of existence. Thus, in different strata
of existence, the same ultimate reality assumes different shapes. The three strata of
reality advocated by Advaita are the vyavaharika, pratibhasika and paramarthika.
Though from the ultimate standpoint reality is one without second, ekam ava
advitiyam, for logical convenience the satta-traya-vada is devised. Apparent reality is
sublated by empirical reality and the latter is negated by the realization of the
ultimate reality. Till a dream continues, it appears to be real. Only when one wakes
up, he realizes the non-reality of his dreaming experience. Disillusionment comes
with a reality-shift in understanding. In fact, any system of knowledge, scientific or
philosophic, which tries to go beyond the immediate functional reality, has to
encounter a reality-shift.