[Advaita-l] Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati's Primary Views

savithri devaraj savithri_devaraj at yahoo.com
Tue Mar 13 21:58:44 CDT 2007

Sri Gurubhyo namaha,

I send this message in an attempt to introduce Sri
Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji and his basic
philosophy to the readers of this group. I feel the
list has seen some pretty intense personal attacks on
Swamiji’s writings/views without a real primer to his
philosophy. This is to present Swamiji's views in his
own words to the many new readers who may not have
been exposed to his writings.

Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati (1880-1975) is
without doubt one of the greatest exponents of
traditional Advaita Vedanta in modern times.  Y.
Subbaraya Sharma (name before sanyasa) grew up in a
poor orthodox South Indian brahmin family and soon
became attached to Vedanta and Hindu philosophy.  In
1910 he was initiated into the study of Shankara
bhashyas by the Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Sringeri
Peetham, Sri Sivabhinava Narasimha bharathi Swamiji .
He learnt Vedanta from Sri Virupaksha Shastri (the
guru of Swami Chandrasekhara Bharati) and Sri K.A.
Krishnaswamy Iyer. 

Based on several years of studying the moola Shankara
bhashyas, Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati authored
over 200 books in Sanskrit, Kannada and English, and
dedicated his life to teaching the pristine pure
Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Shankara.  He soon
became well known for having shown that the later
Vedantic tradition had deviated from the teachings of
the classical acharyas Gaudapada, Shankara and

In 1920 he founded the organization Adhyatma Prakasha
Karyalaya, at Holenarasipura, Karnataka. He was
initiated into sanyasa in 1948.  As a sanyasi,
Satchidanandendra Saraswati Swamiji lived a very
simple and secluded life at his small ashram in
Holenarasipura. His only interest in life was that
later seekers/mumukshus read the original Shankara
bhAshyas, and understand pure Shankara advaita,
instead of being sidetracked the later bhashyakaras.
To this effect, he wrote to authorities of different
universities to introduce original Shankara bhAshyas
in the syllabus where only later commentators were

The following is an excerpt from Swamiji’s plea that
he sent in 1961-62 to the Pandits/Vedantins of the day
to solicit their comments on the topic. Although the
original plea went out in Sanskrit, he later
translated his appeal and the comments from the
Vedantins into an English book called “Vedantins
Meet”. In the publisher’s note, he clearly mentions
his reasons for such a compendium – it would add value
to the students of Vedanta to have access to views of
eminent Vedantins scattered in space and time.  

Here he gives a gist of his philosophy with named
references to the sources. The Sanskrit original
included the Sruti references inline.

Begin Quote

It is a maxim of ancient teachers that doubts and
misconceptions are dispelled and truth is fully
revealed through discussion with those proficient in
any particular branch of knowledge. Acting on that
principle, I shall try here to clarify my position by
stating my impression of Shankara’s system in somewhat
greater detail than I have done in the Appeal

1.	Adhyasa (super-imposition) is nothing but mistaking
one thing for another. And Avidya, as Shankara has
defined it in so many words, is the mutual
superimposition of the Self - the only Reality, and
the not self. There is no other Ignorance worth the
name, which according to Shankara is directly sublated
by Vidya or the discriminative knowledge of the Self
as it is. Doubt and perception, are, it is true, also
comprehended in the connotation of the term and are
sometimes even expressly stated to be such. But since
no human thought-process is possible without the
pre-supposition of Adhyasa, this latter is
pre-eminently entitled to be called Avidya (See
Adhyasa Bhashya, G.B 13-2).
Therefore, those who imagine that the object
super-imposed is primarily meant by the term avidya,
and it is that which has got to be removed by true
knowledge, not only do violence to Shankara’s words,
but also disregard a fact of nature and even common
sense, in as much as no one believes that the apparent
silver in nacre has yet to be removed first by the
true knowledge of nacre, and not one’s own false
notion of it. (S.B Intro).

2.	It is universally accepted by Vedantins that in
Shankara’s system, knowledge is the one means of the
Summum Bonum of life, and the Upanishads expressly say
so. Shankara avers that knowledge wipes off all
ignorance or Adhyasa, the source of all ills of life.
And it goes without saying that knowledge can dispel,
nothing else than subjective ignorance (Tai, Mu, S.B
It is therefore clear that thinkers who assert that
the source of all ills spoken of by Shankara.is the
Mula-Avidya alone, have to maintain their position
only by going against the express statement of
Shankara, and the Srutis, and quietly ignoring the
essential nature of knowledge which can never destroy
existing things.

3.	Shankara’s very proposition that Upanishadic
knowledge of Brahman, is meant for the annihilation of
Adhyasa, is sufficient in itself to convince any one
that the Bhashyakara never thought of tracing Adhyasa
to its cause. For no one could think of going in
search of ignorance after it has been blotted out. And
no one is conscious of his ignorance, while he is in
its grip. But it is no mere guess by which one has to
infer that Shankara does not demand a cause for
Avidya, for he definitely announces that Adhyasa is
beginningless. Nor could one think of a beginning to
it, since even time is a creation of Adhyasa, and
causal relation is inconceivable without the
pre-supposition of time. No doubt Shankara does
declare that all super-imposition derives its breath
from non-discrimination (aviveka), but it is
self-evident that he is not thinking of a temporal
relation between non-discrimination and
super-imposition. He only means to say that Adhyasa
disappears as soon as discriminative knowledge dawns.
The Upanishads are never tired of declaring that the
individual self as well as all this apparent universe
is really Brahman and nothing else. (Mun 2-2-11, Br
3-7-23, G Bh 13-26, S.B Intro).
It is therefore nothing but a wild goose chase to
start in pursuit of a cause for Adhyasa.

4.	Such being the case, illustrations like that of the
silver in the nacre, or the rope in the snake,
interspersed in Shankara’s commentaries meant as they
are to contrast truth with error, only imply that
false appearances being only the figment of ignorance,
cease to impose upon us the moment the real nature of
their substrate is ascertained. These appearances in
themselves are neither born nor destroyed by true
knowledge; in fact they never exist in any way as
entities, for they are merely thought-constructs. (G B
13-21, Ch B 2-23-I, G.B. 2-16, 4-24).
It is therefore so much labor lost to enter into
speculation about the nature, cause and process of
birth or destruction of these false appearances.

5.	The seed form of the universe, known by several
names such as the Avyakta, Akshara, Avyakrita, Akasha,
Prakriti, and so on, is only the object of inference
based upon the false conception of duality. The seed
evolving itself into the individual aggregate of the
body and the senses, lends itself to the mutual
super-imposition of the Self and the not self. It is
this super-imposition, as we have already seen, which
is known by the name of Avidya in Shankara’s system,
while the inferred seed of all phenomena including the
agrregate of the body and the senses is called by the
significant name of Maya, false appearance due to
ignorance. In the Bhagavad Gita, where the terminology
of the Sankhyas has been also pressed into service, it
is observed that “The Purusha staying in Prakriti,
enjoys the Gunas born of Prakriti, and the reason for
his being reborn is good, bad or indifferent lives, is
his clinging to the Gunas” (G. Bh 13-21). Shankara
explains this as meaning that the superimposition of
Prakriti (Maya) and Purusha, as well as the resultant
desire, is at the bottom of all empirical life. Thus
according to Shankara, Avidya being the occasion of
the appearance of the not-self and the ruinous
identification of the Self with it, should not be
confounded with Avyakrita, Prakriti, or Maya which is
only an illusory appearance. (S.B 2-1-9, G.B 13-20,
14-5, 18-48).

6.	Man generally regards himself as an individual
possessed of an aggregate body and senses, and
consequently passing through the waking, dream and
deep-sleep. It is owing to this natal super-imposition
that he is an agent and experiencer of the fruits of
his actions. From the higher standpoint, however,
where he shakes himself off this aggregate by
discrimination, he was never tainted by these
so-called states. From that thought-position,
therefore, it is not at all in point to ask whether
there is avidya in sleep. For what question can there
be avidya in sleep when sleep itself ceases to have
any meaning? This argument applies pari passu to the
series of birth, subsistence and death as well as to
that of origination, sustentation and dissolution of
the world. As a matter of fact, these states even
while they appear, are shot through and through with
the pure consciousness of the Self and are no entities
apart from it. (S.B 2-1-9; G.B 2-17, 2-18).

7.	As a concession to empirical view, however,
Vedantins adopt the common sense view of the states of
consciousness, and try to take the enquirer step by
step to the realization of the truth. To this end,
they teach that the individual self senses duality in
waking, in the dream-state it is aware of apparent
phenomena presented by waking impressions, where as in
deep sleep it is perfectly oblivious not merely of
external objects, but even of itself. Asked to account
for this total absence of consciousness, the Vedantin
offers a two-fold answer based on the sruti. Jiva is
such only so long as he is related to a mind and that
relation, being the effect of Avidya, is never quite
blotted out except by the knowledge of reality. Now
consciousness is possible only when this is manifest
as in waking or dream, and is therefore out of
question when it is latent as in sleep. That jiva is
not altogether free from the limitation of the mind
even in that condition, can be verified from the
circumstance that no sooner one wakes from sound
sleep, than he becomes aware of the manifold world.
Thus far, the answer is from the thought position of
deliberate attribution (adhyaropa) of states to jiva.
The other answer is from the transcendental
standpoint. The individual self is never other than
the real Self, which is ever free. Even while jiva
appears to be invested with the aggregate of the body
and the senses, he remains the untainted witness of it
all, since he can freely shake off that disguise as he
passes on to the dream state where he can be least
suspected to be affected by the illusory surroundings.
The so-called deep sleep reveals his true nature in
all its completeness, for according to the Sruti he is
wholly merged, as it were, in the Pure Consciousness
or Brahman, which knows no second. To conceive the
Self in sleep as ignorant is altogether a delusive
notion since sleep, trance and other kindred states by
their very nature shut out all possibility of either
knowledge or error. Nor can one be said to be
un-conscious in that state, if state it were, for of
what possibly could one be said to be unconscious
where there is absolutely nothing else than the Self?
The Srutis, therefore, rightly proclaim, “Being
consciousness itself, he is not conscious of another,
for there is no other, distinct from him of which he
could be possibly aware." (Br). An examination of the
so-called three states, therefore discloses our self
to be altogether free from all states, the eternally
Pure Consciousness, ever free from all bondage of
Samsara. That we pass through the three states of
consciousness, that we appear to age, die, and are
born again, and that there is creation, sustentation
and dissolution of the world, is an inborn delusion of
the human mind, which can be overcome only by the dawn
of Vedantic enlightenment.
In the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada’s karikas
thereon with Shankara’s Bhashya, another method of the
examination of the three states can be seen. Waking
and dream are first shown to be equal in all respects,
thus denying all claims of waking to a superior degree
of reality. The three states, appearing and
disappearing as they do, each state wiping out the
other two, are then shown to lose every claim to
reality in the metaphysical sense of the term. The
Atman or our real Self, who maintains his
self-identity un-affected by the appearance or
disappearance of the states, is thus clearly seen to
be the only entity that is really real.
(S.B 1-3-20, 2-3-30, 2-3-31, 4-2-8; Br 4-3-7, 4-3-21,
4-2-8, 1-3-20; Bh B 6-9-3; M Bh 7; G. K 2-9,10, 2-14)

8.	To sum up. The only Avidya in Shankara’s Vedanta is
the mutual identification, and the mistaken
transference of the properties, of the real Self and
the unreal not self, which may be illustrated by the
instance of the misconceiving a rope to be a snake.
All human proceeding whether secular or sacred, is
prompted by, and is wholly within the sphere of, this
Avidya. That he reverts to a more discriminating and
considerate mode of life, and acting upon the advice
of Vedanta and a wise teacher, gets enlightenment and
realizes his unalienable identity with Brahman, is
also within the purview of this Avidya. Throughout his
career, extrovert or introvert, Avidya alone is
responsible for all the display of his activities,
though the individual himself never suspects it until
he finally emerges from the somnambulism by knowing
the truth taught by Vedanta. Hence it has been most
aptly called the Avyakta (unmanifest) in the Katha
text ‘mahataH paramvyaktam’.  ‘The unmanifest is
greater than even the great living self”. In a
secondary sense, the primordial matter – the potential
seed-form of the world undifferentiated into names and
forms, is also called Avyakta, since it is unmanifest
as compared with the manifold world, and since it is
manifest as compared with the manifold world, and
since, it is hard to define as either identical with
or distinct from the Self. Moreover, it is also called
Avyakta or Akshara (imperishable) just to distinguish
it from the Supreme Self, which is metaphysically the
subtlest principle transcending all that is known and
Incidentally, it may be remarked that Shankara always
styles this primordial matter Prakriti by the
significant name Maya, but never by the name of Avidya
or any other synonym of ignorance. And conversely, he
invariably calls the mutual super-imposition of the
Self and the not self by the name of Avidya or some
equivalent of it, but we do not meet with any instance
where it is called Maya. Coming down to the other
commentaries, we see that this rule is observed more
in the breach than in practice. In the school of the
Mula-Avidya theory where the law of causation takes
precedence of the principle of truth and error, this
usage is of course justifiable. But can we use the
terms ‘Maya’ and ‘Avidya’ indiscriminately even while
strictly adhering to Shankara’s Adhyasa-vada?

This question has been neither posed nor critically
considered in any Vedantic discussion so far as I am
aware. I shall therefore venture my own opinion in the
matter, and leave the readers to judge for themselves.
In so far as Maya or Prakriti is a figment of Avidya
proper, I think that one is perfectly justified in
calling it Avidya in a secondary sense, just as one
may say ‘This is all his foolery’, meaning thereby the
result of that person’s foolish pranks. And conversely
in so far as Avidya is regarded as a function of the
mind and is included in the world of names and forms,
it may be also called ‘Maya’, meaning thereby an
illusory appearance. But keeping in mind the fact that
‘Avidya’ primarily denotes a species of knowledge and
‘Maya’ an illusory object, we cannot but exclusively
follow Shankara’s practice in using the terms, if we
do not wish to confuse the minds of our readers.
One thing however should be clearly borne in mind. All
this distinction of Vidya and Avidya, Avidya and Maya,
and so forth, is only a concession to the empirical
view, and only a device adapted for the purpose of
teaching the truth. Metaphysically speaking, neither
Avidya nor Maya called into being by it, ever existed
as entities side by side with Brahman; nor is there
any need for Vidya to actually destroy either of the
two. Hence Sri Gaudapada declares: “This is the whole
Truth: There is neither dissolution nor origination;
neither a soul in bondage nor anyone that has got to
accomplish one’s freedom; neither an aspirant for
release nor anyone actually released from samsara” (G
K 2-32) (S.B 1-4-3, 1-2-23, 2-1-27; G.Bh 8-20-21,
13-5, 13-19)

9.	I have placed what I consider to be the salient
points of Shankara’s doctrine of Avidya before the
critical reader. He may now compare it with the other
interpretation of it as presented by the supporters of
the Mula-avidya theory and arrive at his own
conclusion, as to which of the two stands to reason,
and can be verified by universal experience, or what
is more pertinent to the present enquiry, which of the
two interpretations is more faithful to that great
teacher. I have here merely inserted numbers
indicating my authorities for statements made. The
texts themselves may be seen quoted in extensor in the
corresponding portions of the Sanskrit Introduction.

End quote

Warmest Regards,

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