The sources of authority in Advaita Vedanta

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed Mar 12 10:42:32 CST 2003

On Tue, 11 Mar 2003, Sanjay Verma wrote:

> As was reinforced today:
> The following 3 prasthanas are accepted by all advaitins:
>  1. Sruti (namely the Upanishads) 2. Brahma Sutras 3. Bhagavad Gita
> best regards, K Kathirasan
>  Please help me understand. If these are the foundation texts, then do
>  they not carry more weight in spiritual debates (of interpretation of
>  Dharma) than those texts not mentioned on the list (e.g., epics,
>  puranas, manusmriti)?

No why would you think that?  Just as a house needs a foundation, it also
needs walls, doors, a roof etc.  These three are prasthanas in that they
delimit the range of concepts that make up Advaita Vedanta.  However they
are not the be all and end all of authority in Advaita Vedanta (which as I
mentioned is Shruti, Smrti, and shishtachara).  Shankaracharya as was
mentioned earlier also quotes from several minor upanishads, the
Mahabharata, several Puranas etc.  After him, there is a long line of
commentators who may also quote other works.  I am curious as to why you
feel the need to establish an "Advaita Bible?"  As I said in one of the
very first posts, such a notion of canon is alien to our traditions.

Furthermore you are also failing to consider that Dharma and Moksha are
two seperate purusharthas in Advaita tradition.  There is a little overlap
in subject matter (as in the quote from Brahmasutras I am giving below.)
but by and large they are two seperate subjects.  If you are looking in
the wrong place, is it any wonder you don't find any evidence?

> If you cannot accept my account of what He said, I respect your right to
> your interpretation. For the purposes engaging in an edifying
> disquisition, then please offer citations for a better account of what
> Sri Krishna said. As mentioned, I have been quoting Bhagavadgita Bhashya
> as translated by Dr. A.G. Krishna Warrier, and published by the Sri
> Ramakrishna Math. If a debate is to educational, the it is not
> sufficient to say that “I do not accept your account.” I am humbly
> asking you (when you have time) to provide an account you deem to be
> more consistent with Advaita Vedanta.

It's not your account it's any account.  Krishna Bhagawan is a literary
character.  (Note I didn't say fictional though if we are looking from a
critical point we must be prepared to accept the possibility.)  What we
know of Krishna Bhagawan is not "as it is" (despite the protestations of a
recent commentator) but filtered through the prism of a particular
tradition.  Thus if we are trying to determine what that tradition is,
quoting one of its products as a source is a circular argument.

On the other hand Shankaracharya is a historical person with a distinct
body of work and fixed views.  Even his opponents know exactly what he
stood for.

> My postings refer to specific quotes, and it should not be difficult to
> find competing interpretations.
> All I ask is that opposition to my account of what Sri
> Krishna said be drawn from the Foundation Texts as listed above – I ask
> for this limitation because I have tried to limit my citations to the
> Bhagavadgita Bhashya and the Upanishads.

I repeat once again that this is an illegitimate method of interpretation.
If you are going to cite anything, you should cite Manu, or Yajnavalkya,
or Parashara.  The post that started this topic long before quoted
the Dharmasutras of Apasthamba, Gautama, and Vasishtha,  Even there we saw
a literal reading need not be taken but at least they are a valid starting
point for Dharmajignasa as the Mimamsasutras put it.

Anyway if it is the prasthanatrayi you want here is the apashudra
prakarana of theBrahmasutras (I.3.34-38)  the question is are shudras (and
by extension other non-dvijas,) entitled to learn the Vedas?

The purvapaksha is yes becuse we have the examples of Janashruti and
Satyakama Jabala.  In the Chandogyopanishad a king called Janashruti
approaches the Brahman Raikva to learn brahmavidya and is called a Shudra
and rebuffed.  When he asks a second time he is taught.  Satyakama Jabala
is the boy you mentioned who didn't know who his father was.  (Note
however tradition does not accept that his mother was a prostitute.)  He
approaches Maharshi Gautama for instruction who asks him his lineage.
When he truthfully answers that he doesn't know, Maharshi Gautama assumes
he must be a Brahmana and teaches him.

But according to Maharshi Vedavyasa, the Siddhanta is
no because:

34. it refers to sorrow from hearing his insult.

In the case of Janashruti means "sorrowful one" not it's conventional
meaning of a member of the Shudra caste.  Because he was in sorrow when he
approached Raikva Rshi, he was rebuffed and called shudra.  When he
transcended his sorrow and came to him a second time, he was accepted.

35.  And because his Kshatriyahood is known through his relationship with
the son of Chitrarath.

How do we know the etymological meaning should be taken and not the
conventional one?

Further proof that he was not a Shudra by caste is the fact that he was
actually a Kshatriya.  How do we know?  Because the Chandogyopanishad
mentions his relationship to Chaitrarath Abhipratin who was a Kshatriya.
In the Vedas only two people of equal rank are mentioned together.  (As
well as singular and plural, Sanskrit has a dual number.)  How do we know
Chaitraratha was a a Kshatriya?  Because Chaitraratha means the son of
Chitraratha who is explicitly called a Kshatriya.  (So there is no
confusion, let me emphasize what is being said here.  The son of a
Kshatriya is a Kshatriya.)

36. And sanskaras are mentioned, but for them their absence is declared.

Another reason is given: Vedic study begins with the upanayana samskara
(yajnopavita or janoi) In the Vedas (e.g in the Shatapathabrahmana which
is a text I'm familiar with) the rules for upanayana are given for
Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.  No such rule is given for Shudras so
the inference is they are not entitled.  Furthermore the masculine noun is
used so we can infer that women aren't allowed either.

37.  And only after ascertaining the absence of that was he inclined.

now the case of Satyakama? How did Maharshi Gautama know that Satyakama
wasn't a Sudra.  Because of his devotion to telling the truth even when it
was embarrasing.  The unspoken assumption being that Shudras are incapable
of being that truthful which is rather uncomplimentary don't you think?
Only after ascertaining non-Shudrahood did he begin teaching.

38. And their hearing, understanding, and learning is prohibited by the

The smrtis expressly prohibit Shudras from learning, understanding and
indeed hearing the Vedas.  Please note Smrti is explicitly being given as
an authority here on equal footing with Shruti.  Shankaracharya says the
Smrti being quoted is Manusmrti.

Thus the conclusion is the non-dvijas may not study the Vedas.

Shankaracharya goes on to add his own comments which I think reveal why
one must always look at the context instead of random lines:  Because
jnana is its own cause Shudras like Vidura and Dharmavyadha (the Dharmic
hunter.  Also mentioned in the Mahabharata) were able to achieve it.
They can learn the itihasa and puranas as Smrti says they are for all four

The commentries explain: The (ritual portions of the) Vedas deal with
things which are produced and destroyed.  So it is legitamate to say
different people have different adhikara (rights, capabilities) to do
those things.  Jnana however is not "caused."  Brahman pervades all beings
so anyone who is capable of self-reflection (atmavichara) is capable of
getting it.  The question is how?  If they cannot do it through Vedic
study, then there must be some other way.  That way is to read the
adhyatmic portions of the Smrti such as the Gita, or Bhagavata etc.

So you can see that from the Vedantic point of view, this rush to get all
and sundry to read the Vedas is totally pointless.  Those people are
encouraging people to transgress Dharma for nothing.

Perhaps I could have avoided a lot of back and forth if I'd just quoted
this in the first place but the issues are so basic it doesn't even occur
to me that one would need a book to justify them.  It's as if I had said,
"cows have four legs, humans have two" and you had said "oh yeah? Give me
a citation that proves that."

> Is S. Radhakrishnan an acceptable interpreter of Advaita Vedanta?

Nope he was just a politician.

> If not, by what authority in the Advaita Vedanta tradition is his
> commentary and interpretation invalid?

For one thing he doesn't claim to be an Advaitin, his views are similiar
but idiosyncratic.

> I just explained above that henceforth I shall refrain from citing
> sources not consistent with this group’s understanding of Advaita
> Vedanta to justify my statements. However, I do reserve the right (so
> long as no one has any objection) to contribute their comments
> occasionally to offer a different perspective on topics of dharma,
> moksha, etc. If that is “inappropriate” by the “editorial
> administrators” of this discussion group, I shall refrain from that
> also. However, then I ask all members that they refrain from posting
> anything outside the accepted list of Advaita Vedanta authorities (is
> there such a list to be provided?).

No comparisons are not inappropriate as long as it is understood they are
comparisons.  In fact I think it is healthy for us to understand the views
of rival camps.  Not so much Chaitanya but only because he didn't do much
systematic philosophical thinking.  Most of the Gaudiya philosophy is
actually due to the 6 goswamis who were his disciples.

> As for Sri Chaitanya, I encourage each of us to please not throw out the
> baby with the bathwater, or to not confuse the message with the
> messenger. While ISKCON may have “claimed” Sri Chaitanya as one of their
> own, Sri Chaitanya himself predates ISKCON and should not be held
> accountable for the (mis)interpretations of Vaishnavism that ISKCON has
> practiced.

The history of Vaishnava oppoition to Advaita Vedanta long predates
ISKCON.  They merely shout the loudest these days.

> A similar story about Adi
> Shankaracharya and the chandala (who was actually Shiva), in detail, was
> sent to me by Ken Knight. The conclusions one may draw from such stories
> are indeed different.

Stories are there to illustrate a point but are we engaged in storytelling
or rational thinking?  Shankaracharya has left enough actual words that we
do not need to second-guess what he meant.  I would prefer some more in
the way of historical or sociological evidence.

> if one takes the perspective that the Vedic
> traditions were being practiced in a way that needed to be corrected.

I don't take that perspective neither do I see a need to take it.  Vedic
tradition is largely the same today as it was in (our best estimate of)
Shankaracharyas' time. An 18th century author like Bhaskararaya calls
himself "prativasanta somayajin" (one who performs somayajna every
spring), "mahagnichit" etc.  We have many historical examples of Advaitins
who were Vedic ritualists in their previous ashram.  Even today Shrauta
yajnas continue in small pockets.  And if we add Grhya rites, the
number is in the tens of thousands at least,  The digvijayas which are the
nearest thing we have to biographies of Shankaracharya do indeed present
him as a correcter of the Mimamsaka overpreoccupation with ritual but they
show it as a minor course correction rather than a full-blown reform.

> Just as one concrete example, prior to Sri Krishna, women and non-dvijas
> were not only prohibited from learning the Vedas, they were ineligible
> for moksha and jivanmukti.

There is no historical backing for such a blanket statement.  One you
don't even know Krishna Bhagawans' date, and second even in the shastras
there are examples: i.e. Maitreyi, Devahuti etc.

> This social prohibition was practiced by many
> religious groups (the Vedic-based, the Buddhist, the Jain, and some of
> the shramana sects).

In the case of Jains this was one of the reasons for the split between
Digambaras and Shvetambaras.  And that if I remember rightly, occured in
the 3rd century BC, long before Shankaracharya and long after the religon
of Krishna Bhagawan had achieved prominence.

> Furthermore, the Vedas were “given” to
> the European translators by the help of pundits throughout India. It is
> through the help of the pundits that the Europeans transcribed and
> translated the Vedas (please this is not about the integrity of their
> translations, but about access to the Vedas being limited to the
> dvijas). So, if the pundits themselves participated in this process, in
> contradiction to shastraic injunction, why are we debating about whether
> or not Shudras should have access to the Vedas? Or are we to dismiss the
> whole lot of them (the pundits) for betraying our tradition?

Well this hinges on a legalistic interpretation of what consists reading.
Vidyashankar has already mentioned that a recent Shankaracharya doesn't
consider translations to fall under the injunction.  The Bengali Pandits
may have felt the same way.  But look at what they _didn't_ do.  They
didn't take consider foreigners as part of the chain of Guru-shishya
transmission, they didn't invite any of those foreign scholars to perform
marriages, pujas, etc., they didn't use those translations themselves.
They considered academic pursuits (like the Shiva-Vishnu thread going on
now) to be interesting perhaps but not relevant to Dharmic pursuits.  I
get a lot of questions on the list and off from various people on various
topics.  I am happy to assist people with translations etc.  But when they
ask about religious practice, I have to tell them the truth whether they
want to hear it or not.

> Once again, please try and read the spirit of the message and not the
> letter of the message.

It would help prevent misunderstanding if you would make the letter match
the spirit.

> Agreed, the Ramayana(s) are not part of the
> Vedas. It is still relevant to the discussion as follows: If shastraic
> injunction is the justification to prohibit Shudras from access to the
> Vedas, then shastraic injunction must be universally practiced.

If there is a law against murder and you bring up an example of littering,
it's not very relevant is it?

> If it is not universally practiced, then it further lends to the
> interpretation that Brahmins (e.g., Tulsidas) have broken the tradition
> if the Brahmins and given access to the Sanskrit texts to the common
> people. Why did other Brahmin not want Tulsidas to translate the
> Ramayana from Sanskrit into the vernacular

Perhaps it was not out of a desire to exclude but because they thought
Awadhi was a vulgar language?  Around this time the literary use of
vernaculars was still a novelty.

In any case the opponents did not simply ban it but debated the merits.
Swami Madhusudan Saraswati the great Advaitin scholar defended him and
eventually they relented.  One of the arguments was the same one
Shankaracharya mentions in the Brahmasutrabhashya quote above, that the
shastras say itihasa and purana should be heard by all four varnas.

> (I intentionally avoid the
> word Hindi here because Tulsidas translated it into what the precursor
> to Hindi, Hindwi I believe it was called)?

Actually the language of the Ramacharitamanas is Awadhi which I suppose
you could call a hindi dialect?

> What I
> interpret from that story is that Tulsidas, a revered saint in Indian
> history, broke from tradition.

No what he did was extend the tradition.  Just as by using the modern
technology of the internet, i'm extending the tradition to tell you this.

> So, why cannot we also break from
> tradition and disregard the limitation of teaching of the Vedas only to
> the dvijas? Or is Tulsidas also not accepted in Advaita Vedanta
> tradition?

Because that's not an extension but a break and a pointless one at that.

If you are going to break with tradition and make up your own religion as
you go along I have nothing to say to you except to remind you the topic
of this list is Advaita Vedanta as taught by Shri Shankara and the Smarta

> You say that “this is the view of the majority”. Majority of whom?

The majority of Shishtas. Those who are qualified by knowledge and
practice to give an educated opinion.

>I just came across a dialogue between Sri Rama and his guru Vasishta. Sri
> Rama asked his guru if dharma was like a stone – unchanging. Vasishta
> replied, that no, dharma changes with the times.
> I do not know if the above story appears in the critical edition of
> Valmiki’s Ramayana or if in another recension. When I find the exact
> citation, I will provide it for you and the group. I am fully admitting
> that I contribute the above story without any citation to provide just
> yet (citation forthcoming, I promise).

I haven't heard of it either so i'll reserve judgement until you provide
the quote.

> I did ask my grandfather when he was alive. He was not a pundit, but
> nevertheless, very well-read in our scriptures and was able to hold his
> own ground in discussions with pundits. It may interest you to know that
> our last name “Verma” is not our real name. After partition, when we
> moved from Multan to Meerut, Dadaji changed our family name to “Verma”
> to obscure caste identity.

An Advaitin values truth above else.

>  He taught strongly against caste
> distinctions, and his servants in his house were treated with much
> respect and dignity. He was prepared to teach Sanatana Dharma (as he
> understood it) to anyone who would listen, whether it be a servant, a
> niece or nephew, or the Jehovas Witness missionary who came to our door
> in Los Angeles and was greeted by Dadaji! J He was the one who first
> taught me the Gayatri Mantra (and later, without knowing that my
> grandfather gave this to me) our family guru also gave me the Gayatri
> Mantra as my mantra. In our family, as taught by Dadaji, caste
> distinction (for the purpose of access to the Vedas) was strictly
> prohibited.

Well I'm glad we are atleast getting on to historical examples instead of
legendary ones.  It looks to me like your Grandfather was more influenced
by Islamic or Aryasamajist thinking than any Astika sampradaya.  Be that
as it may, we cannot simply take one persons views and call it a
tradition.  My grandmother is an authority not just because she has
certain views but because they are the views that _her_ grandparents had
and so on.  That's what makes them Dharma rather than opinions.  I can
trace my family and it customs to the 16th century atleast.  Many can do
much better.  What is missing in your views is any kind of historical
perspective.  There is some legends of the distant past, a big black hole,
then suddenly in the 19th century history starts up again.

> Wow what a broad, blanket statement!!! “Every man on every street”

> “Indians have understood caste to be based on birth.” When was the last
> time you lived in India?

That many modern Indians are Dharmically illiterate is not news to me.

> In the three years that I have been here
> studying medicine, most of my classmates assert over and over again that
> they do not practice any “caste” in terms of occupation or access to
> scripture, and certainly not based on birth.

Once again you provide your own rejoinder.

> The only practice is of
> parents wanting children to marry within the same community. This
> emphasis is made more because of common language, common food, and
> common customs, not on any caste assignment by birth.

Replacing the word caste with community is only a cosmetic change.  Have
you noticed how many South Indian names there are on this list? Many more
than you would expect if we matched the population demographics of India.
This is because they come from an environment with a living Advaitic
tradition.  even your South Indian friend is practising a garbled version
of Advaita Vedanta rather than a garbled version of sikhism or a garbled
version of some cult because of her cultural background.  And in all the
long debates this list has seen on this topic, views similiar to yours
have been strenuously argued by North Indians.  This is because of your
background where for historical reasons, Vedic tradition is weak.
Ideology doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It is embedded in culture.  And the
medium of transmission of culture is the family.

> Sri Krishna does say that caste is determined by birth, but not by birth
> into a particular family. He refers to the gunas, and svabhava. One is
> born into one’s caste as determined by one’s previous life and the inner
> nature developed thus far.

Then a cowardly Kshatriya like Arjuna is an oxymoron.  A wicked Brahmin
like Aswatthama or Ajamila is an oxymoron.  A martial Brahmana like Drona
or Krpa is an oxymoron.  A martial Bhila like Ekalavya is an oxymoron.  A
wise Shudra like Vidura is an oxymoron.  In all these cases, people are
given their caste designations not because of their svabhava but because
of their birth.  A historical example:  Gandhijis family were Gujarati
Vaishyas of the Modha caste.  The word Gandhi means grocer but the family
occupation was diwanship of various princely states.  They were Modha
Vanias by birth not occupation.

> Thank you for sharing such personal information about your spiritual
> teachers. It is refreshing to read that you consider even non-Advaitins
> as your “guides”. So, if you can use as your “guides” a Vaishnava
> priest, and a beautiful woman who “combines the love of God with the
> bustle of daily life,

The combination has limits.  I wouldn't ask my babysitter about the Vedas
for her opinion if she even had one doesn't count.

> ” so too I refer to my spiritual community of my
> Dadaji, my parents (especially my mother to exemplifies forbearance and
> bhakti better than any other one I know), Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and my
> Sanskrit professors at UC Berkeley to help me put into context
> statements in the Gita and Upanishads on such topics as dharma and
> moksha. In my community of elders and spiritual teachers, caste as
> strictly assigned by birth into a family (i.e., family lineage) is not
> practiced. Furthermore, the emphasis is more on meditation, satsang,
> social service, and cultivating one’s own divinity (especially through
> practice of daya) than on interpreting shastraic social conduct.

A community is not a random assemblage of people but has a history, a way
of life etc.  Your spiritual community as described is unstable and doomed
to failure like all the other attempts to do the same thing before it.  I
say this not with rancor but based on my knowledge of the history of
modern reformist thinking in Hinduism. Maybe you naively think it will be
different this time or you don't mind.  That's fine, you can believe in
any combination of opinions you like but where I have a problem is if you
say you are being faithful to the past or to Advaita Vedanta when you most
certainly are not.

> And hence the source of our disagreement. For you he is not a reliable
> guide to Advaita Vedanta, and for me is the most reliable living guide
> on Advaita Vedanta.

My mother doesn't think so either and she first met him in I think 1962,
before he bacame that famous anyway.  But then she is an educated woman
who knows both Advaita Vedanta and Sai Baba wheareas you only know one so
far.  So of coure your perspectives are going to be different.

> My friend Aruna, to whom I referred above, is part of an Ashram in
> Andhra Pradesh. They held a spiritual conference, and the nearby
> Shankaracharya also attended. While most of the religious gurus were
> paid respect by touching their feet and placing garlands on them, such
> was not so with the Shankaracharya. The explanation given was that if
> one touches the Shankaracharya he must wash himself from 11 wells for a
> period of over a week (if the offender was a man) and about a full year
> (if the offender were a woman) to cleanse himself of the impurity
> incurred by someone touching him.

Note that he didn't say _they_ had to cleanse themselves, he said _he_
did.  So what's the problem?  Or did they want to give him garlands but
not actually listen to him?

Advaita Vedanta never developed that cult of personality around Gurus as
found in e.g. Sant Mat or some types of Vaishnavism.  Our gurus are
teachers not garland racks.

[much elided]

> Yes, I refer to the Gita getting special treatment with the following:
> 1)  The Gita is on the list of Foundation Texts. The MB and the Puranas
> and others listed above are not.

The Gita is part of the Mahabharata.  Your concept of foundation texts is

> 2)  In the Bhaja Govindam, the Gita is mentioned (twice) as means for
> salvation, not MB, not the epics, not any other specific text by name.

Not true.  Gitam geyam nama sahasram is one of the  quotes.  It refers to
the Vishnu Sahasranama alongside the Gita.  The V.S. is part of the
Mahabharata and also has a commentary by Shankaracharya.

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

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