The sources of authority in Advaita Vedanta

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue Mar 11 10:11:49 CST 2003

On Tue, 11 Mar 2003, Sanjay Verma wrote:

>  Your continued insistence on reference to “reformer types” demonstrates
>  that you have not understood my statements.

No this was just an example of people who attach different weights to
different parts of the canon.

>  Which “reformer type” have I quoted that you find so disagreeable? Are
>  you discrediting Sri Krishna, Sri Chaithanya, Adi Shankaracharya and
>  the Upanishads? Are their interpretations and comments not valid? Have
>  I not quoted them more than anyone else? Please state directly which
>  “reformer type” I have quoted whom you deem an invalid source.

I'm not discrediting Krishna Bhagawan but neither can I automatically
accept your account of what he taught as there are many conflicting
interpretations of what he said.  You and I may agree that Krishna
Bhagawan is a teacher of Advaita Vedanta but a follower of Ramanuja may
consider him a teacher of vishistadvaita.  A follower of Abhinavagupta may
conider him a Shaiva teacher!  At the very least we should suspend
judgement until we investigate further.

Chaitanya I definitely discredit as a valid authority.  Although he may
have originally taken sannyasa in an Advaitin order, he became a renegade.
Today his followers are the biggest opponents of Advaita Vedanta.

Shankaracharya, I obviously don't discredit.  But I submit to you your
estimate of the reforms he made is wrong.

The Upanishads have the same issue as Krishna Bhagawan. There are
conflicting opinions and to assume they teach Advaita Vedanta while
alright with me is putting the cart before the horse if we are looking a
them in a critical way.

> This whole discussion
>  began with access to the Vedas for Shudras (i.e., my involvement in the
>  discussion). For thousands of years sages have argued against limiting
>  Vedic knowledge only to the dvijas.

No they have argued for limiting knowledge of the *Vedas* to Dvijas.  But
Vedic knowledge is more than that.  If that is all we are arguing about
then we have no argument.

> Are they all vagaries of their time
>  to be discredited? In your own example below, Tulsidas translated the
>  Ramayana from Sanskrit to a vernacular language so that all may have
>  access to it, despite the strong disproval expressed by his fellow
>  Brahmins.

Well the Ramayana is not part of the Vedas so that example is not relevant
to the question of access to the Vedas.

>  This is the point that I am repeatedly making: that despite
>  shastraic statements for or against certain cultural practices, sages,
>  saints, rishis, etc. have acted contrary to the shastras, and as such
>  we should not take the shastraic injunctions so literally in our time.
>  Even in the Mahabharata, the Pandavas violated the established rules of
>  battle so that they may be victorious. Shastraic statements are guides
>  for our social conduct: nothing more, and nothing less.

So then I ask you if the rules of the shastras are only a guideline, why
did Tulsidasji not translate the Vedas themselves into Hindi?  Why didn't
anyone else?  The very reason we are having this conversation is that
there are many people, including myself, who do not see the dictates of
our ancestors (which includes Shruti, Smrti, and Shistachara as mentioned
above) as mere suggestions but a way of life.  Further I argue that this
is the view of the majority and it is those who hold minority view who
have the onusof explaining themselves.

> I already made this point. Interestingly, that part of my writing has
> been edited out.

Maybe I didn't understand.

> I did mention that as common people practice Hinduism,
> the epics, shastras, and Puranas serve to influence their behavior and
> social norms more. But are you suggesting that just because the common
> people are more familiar with and moved by the epics and Puranas, that
> those are the ultimate sources of authority in a spiritual debate?

Yes! Precisely.  Historical practice trumps any book.  (consider until
recently the vast majority of Indians have been illiterate.)  When I talk
about my religion I'm not just talking about some theoretical concept but
the actual practices of my ancestors.  To understand caste why do you need
to look in the Gita?  Ask your own Grandfather.  See what his Grandfather
did and his and his and...

> If
> there is difference of agreement, do not the religious adepts then refer
> to “higher” sources of authority for social norms and the proper path(s)
> to moksha as described in the Upanishads or Vedas? We are engaged in a
> debate. So, when I say that certain texts have more spiritual authority,
> I am not referring to any random man on the street.

I'm not talking about a random man in the street either.  I'm talking
about *every* man on *every* street.  From Kashmir to Kanyakumari from the
21th century BC to the 21st century AD Indians have understood caste to be
based on birth.  If you are reading otherwise from the Gita there are only
two conclusions:

1. Throughout history all Hindus everywhere have misunderstood the Gita.
2. The Gita means something other than you think it does.

I'm sure you'll agree the first choice is simply absurd.

> Okay, fine. I place the burden back on you. Which “scholars, acharyas,
> and elders” are valid sources of authority and which are not?

My first and foremost guides to Dharma have been my parents and
Grandparents.  Whenever we have some family celebration, the first person
we consult is my Grandmother.  Despite the fact she has never learnt
Sanskrit beyond a few shlokas, by virtue of having seen many such
celebrations and rembering how her grandmother used to do things, she is
an authority.  Next is my Guruji though I've lost contact with him now he
has taken sannyasa.  But he taught me much of my outlook on how to
approach the shastras.  Next is the priest of our local mandir who is
actually a Vaishnava.  But he is very learned and I often ask his advice
on aspects of my studies which are unclear.  Next is the pious members of
my community.  In particular my daughters babysitter who is not a
Brahmana, not an Advaitin and doesn't have much formal education even in
Gujarati but is simply amazing in the way she combines the love of God
with the bustle of daily life.  I consider her and a few others as
authorities in vinaya (conduct.)

Now getting to formal sources.  On a daily basis I use
Shuklayajurvediyabrahmanityakarmasammuchaya of Durgashankar Shastri,
Shuklayajurvediyahnikakarmaprakasha and naimittikakarmaprakasha of
Nathuram Sharma, Dharmasindhu of Kashinath Upadhyaya and Nirnayasindhu of
Kamalakara Bhatta.  These are all compendia of quotes in Sanskrit from
dharmashastras.  For Vedanta I primarily read Shankaracharyas works and
the commentaries thereon, the later Advaita acharyas such as Vachaspati
Mishra, Swami Vidyaranya, Swami Madhusudana Saraswati, etc. Shrividya
authors such as Bhaskararaya and the contemporary heirs to Shankaran
tradition, such as the heads of the Sringeri, Kanchi, Dwarka maths etc.

> And if two
> groups of “scholars, acharyas, or elders” disagree, does not one then go
> directly to the Shruti texts?

...and Smrti and Shistachara.  Yes.

> Or does one wait until the two groups
> enter a public debate to see whose arguments are more influential. On
> the issue of caste, and shastraic injunctions, I have quoted Sri
> Krishna, Adi Shankaracharya, Sri Chaitanya Mahaaprabhu, and Sri Sathya
> Sai Baba. Whom among this list would you discredit?

Well I already answered you on several of these.  My mother is a follower
of Satya Sai Baba, I know many Sai devotees and I've even hosted their
bhajans in my place.  So I am aware of his good qualities.  But I must
say he is absolutely not a reliable guide to Advaita Vedanta.  These
Babajis come from a whole different social and intellectual stratum from
the Sanskrit authors we talk about here.

> You seem to have trouble comprehending the written word. I said that
> “nowhere is it forbidden” and that “it is encouraged” to eat or not eat
> meat.

Ok but so what?  What I'm saying it doesn't have to be written anywhere to
be binding.

> I made no reference to the common regional practices of Brahmins
> and Kshatriyas throughout India.

What you refer to as "common regional practices" is what I am refering to
as Dharma.  Dharma is not some abstract thing but means specific actions
for specific types of people.

> Yet you say, “this is totally factually
> wrong.” Shall I waste the time to find the citations where different
> foods and activities are recommended for each caste?

Actually I'm intrigued.  Please do so.  And for each actual caste that
exists not theoretical ones.

> If you use this
> line of reasoning, then one can put forth examples of “Brahmins” who
> don’t live a life of teaching and studying.

Yes, they either are lazy or ignorant or hypocrites.  The Brahmana _ideal_
is a life of teaching and studying.  Of course they often fall short of
the ideal just as Arjuna fell short of the Kshatriya ideal of bravery,
nations sometimes fall short of the ideal of democracy etc.  Such failure
is bad but it doesn't invalidate the ideal.

> On this very list it was
> stated as “FACT” that a Brahmin who does not live a life of studying and
> teaching is just as low as a Shudra.

Is comparable to a Shudra but is not actually a Shudra.  And I don't
believe "low" entered into it.  A shudra who fulfills his Dharma is just
as "high" if not "higher"

> As I mentioned in my previous email, “reform” and syncretism are an
> ongoing process in Hinduism for thousands of years. There is no Hindu
> Bible, but there are texts that carry more authority. By whom?
> Apparently, that is the source of our disagreement.

Yes absolutely.

> If you are placing such importance on family tradition now, then you are
> providing the very arguments with which I began. It doesn’t matter what
> the shastras say regarding caste distinction. If a particular family or
> community practices no such distinction, then that should suffice.

But the thing is there is no such community.  This is a matter of
historical record.

> My point exactly, However, you seem to be very biased in accepted
> sources of authority that do not agree with your tradition as it has
> been given to you.

Of course!  that's what makes me a Smarta and not a Muslim or a Sikh etc.

> Logic and history have shown over and over that caste
> distinction in reference to access to Vedic knowledge do not have a
> place in our society now – not by “reformer types” but by sages. Such
> segregation has been challenged for thousands of years.

Yet it still continues to this day and is accepted by the vast majority.
So either the sages were totally ineffectual in their challenge or you
misunderstand what they are saying.

> if you would in advance provide members with a list of valid sources of
> authority when engaging in a debate.

There is much literature in the Advaita tradition on pramanavada or
epistomology.  The Vedantaparibhasha is one accessible source.  Also
Advaitins take much of their exegetical theory from the Bhatta Mimamsakas
so you can take a look at some of their writings.

> But then, what debate would there
> be in preaching to the choir?

There is a vast middle ground between "one true way" and "anything goes."
I acknowledge some diversity of opinion.  In fact I think it is a plus of
our religion.  But just because there are some or even a lot of valid
alternatives, it doesn't mean _every_ alternative is valid.

> Well, some acharyas reject this view, and others do not. Maharishi
> Mahesh, student of the Shankaracharya of one of the Northern Maths,

The transcendental meditation guy? He may have started in the Shankaran
tradition but he broke from it.  His opinion is not valid on the subject
of Advaita Vedanta.  In fact with his "yogic flying" stunts etc. I
consider him a charlatan whose views are good for nothing.

> states that even the Gita is beyond the comprehension of most human
> beings due to their nescience. Or, shall I discredit his opinion because
> he is not on your list of “valid authorities”?

Yes, you got it.

> Again, if you read my
> statement carefully, I said “too complex for most”. I did not say that
> it cannot be understood, but that it can be understood by only a few.
> However, if you do not like my view, I refer you to
> “Just one man among thousands strives to win it; among those who know
> and strive, only one comes to know Me in truth.” [BG 7:3]
> I used the word “paradox” in the above statement to which you objected.
> If you look at the word paradox, it literally means “a seemingly
> self-contradictory statement that still makes sense”.

As long as you use the word "seemingly" (which was missing from your
previous post) then I agree with you.  The reason I brought this up was
because there is actually a brand of interpretation that says the true
meaning of the Vedic words (or even speech in general) can only be
fathomed by "Yogic insight."  I wanted to make clear to readers that this
is not the Advaita position.

> I am not talking about any mysterious thing. I am observing that in
> practice, through the centuries, more sages demonstrate their spiritual
> authority by commenting on the Gita than any other single text. Is this
> not so?

No.  Historically to make your mark you had to write a Brahmasutra
commentary.  for instance Chaitanya didn't so in the end his 18th century
follower Baladeva Vidyabhushana had to write one for the Gaudiya movement
to be taken seriously by the intellectual public of the day.

Gita commentaries are popular no doubt about it.  Lying on the fault line
between karma and jnana it is a very compelling work.  But did people
write to  "demonstrate their spiritual authority?"  No they didn't.

> This is a common tool in academics to ascertain what a cultural
> tradition deems important. If many religious scholars throughout the
> tradition have commented on it, or derived their teaching from it, then
> it holds a de facto importance in that culture.

Agreed.  So from an academic viewpoint you should look at the actual
practice of caste and see how much the Gita is referenced with regard to
it.  I'm willing to bet you will find very little.

> Technically, it is
> smriti; I agreed with you on that. What I added, is that it has more
> weight, based on what I just explained in this paragraph. Furthermore,
> in the Gita itself, as agreed by Shankaracharya with reference to
> Chapter 15, it states:
> [I quote a translation of Adi Shankaracharya’s commentary]
> “Though the entire Gita is held to be a shastra, this chapter by itself
> is here styled shastra by way of eulogy. This is clear from the context,
> because the import of the entire Gita has been briefly set forth here.
> Not only the import of the Gita, but also the entire import of the Veda
> has been given here in summary. Who knows it, is the knower of the
> Vedas.”
> Are not Sri Krishna and Adi Shankaracharya elevating the Gita to a high
> level?

Yes certainly.  But only the Gita?  Shankaracharya quotes other sections
of the Mahabharata and Puranas also.  I don't see any sign that the Gita
is given special treatment.  True he wrote a commentary on it but healso
wrote one on Vishnu Sahasranama which is part of the Mahabharata, Lalita
trishati which is part of Brahmanda Purana etc.

>  I gave my arguments for the Gita, and admitted that I do not have
> concrete arguments in support of the Brahmasutra.
> Your statement “you should find out such basic facts first before
> proceding further” is just outright offensive and inconsistent with the
> spirit of exchanging ideas so that all members may learn.

Well I apologize if it came across as an insult as that was definitely not
the intention. It's just a statement like "I don't know what weight the
Brahmasutras has in the tradition" is astounding to anyone with more than
a passing aquaintance with Vedantic thought.

> The Brahmasutra is not as well known, as well read, or as well quoted
> the world over. It is not an entry level text for those studying or
> practicing Vedanta.

And the upanishads are?  Even the Gita has as much relevance as a stotra
then as a philosophical work.  More likely candidates would be the
Siddhantaleshasamgrah of Appaya Dikshita (which is a condensation of the
topics of the Brahmasutras) or the Vedantaparibhasha or the Panchadashi or
some of the prakaranas of Shankaracharya such as Vivekachudamani or
Aparokshanubhuti etc.  Certainly for the advanced student study of the
Brahmasutras is a must.  If this fact is not widely known, something has
gone terribly wrong.  (I think you can guess who I suspect is responsible
for this situation.)

> Finally, I will say that in the spirit of discussion, one must offer
> one’s difference of opinion in a manner that is encouraging and
> respectful. If you think a person is offering opinions that are not
> based in fact, then please feel free to clarify. If you really want to
> encourage discussion, then first invite the person to further clarify
> and defend his/her perspective.

You are right.  And I do invite you to continue the discussion.

> However, your comments have more often
> than not been condescending, derogatory, and pedantic.

Again, I'm sorry if that's how it looks as it was not how I meant it.
But the bottom line is that I think you are wrong on many counts.  And I
think the reason you are wrong is because your views are based on wrong
assumptions and a lack of context.  I'll strive to say this nicely but
there you are.

> Need I remind you
> the importance in the Vedantic tradition of sweet speech in cultivating
> one’s spirituality? Shall I quote precisely the section of the Gita
> wherein Sri Krishna specifically mentions sweet speech and compassion as
> requisites to attaining equanimity?

Yes you are right.

> To date, you have yet to quote the Vedas or the Upanishads or
> the Gita to counter any of my statements.

It should be clear by now that I regard this argument as a straw man.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a girl! See the pictures -

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