[Advaita-l] varNAsharama system at the time of shankara

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Mon Jul 14 00:21:09 CDT 2008

On Mon, 16 Jun 2008, Bhaskar YR wrote:

> While reading through bhAshya on 1-3-33, I've observed one important
> assertion of shankara that is about system of varNAshrama dharma existing
> at  that point of time...Here shankara implies that at that time
> varNashrama system was not strictly in order..Shankara says here :
> idAnImIva cha kAlAntarepi avyavasThita prAyAn varNAshrama dharmAn
> pratijAnIta, tatascha vyavasThAvidAyi shAstraM anarThakaM syAt...

I finally got a chance to look into this.  Actually it is an extention 
of what the purvapakshin (Mimamsakas apparently) are saying not 
Shankaracharyas own view.  (The word syAt is the key here.)

As you note the dEvatAdhikaraNa deals with whether the Gods are eligible 
for brahmavidya.  Maharshi Jaimini thinks they are not.  Maharshi 
Badarayana (the author of the Vedanta sutras) says they are.

As a background it is a belief that both Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa 
also known as Vedanta share that the position of Devata is won as a result 
of ones good karma.  Even the exalted position of the Devaraja Indra is 
won because he had performed 100 Ashvamedha Yajnas (hence He is called 
Shatakratu)  Many of us will remember the story in Vishnupurana where the 
arrogance of one bearer of the name Indra is humbled by Maharshi Narada 
who shows Him a line of ants passing under His throne each of which by 
their good deeds in previous lives become Indra and then because of bad 
deeds sunk down after many lives to the level of ants.

Where they part company is that Purva Mimamsa holds that the entire Veda 
consists of prescriptions or prohibitions of actions.  Meditation on 
Brahman is also an act.  Now take for example the madhuvidyA taught in 
bR^ihadAranyakopaniShad.  It says a man should meditate on the mArutas, 
vasus, Adityas etc. (all classes of devata) as madhu. Then he becomes 
identified with the devas of that class. So how can the devas 
meditate upon and identify with themselves?  That would just be solipsism. 
Without an action which they can perform, they cannot gain the result. 
But Vedanta teaches that Brahman is not a product of any sort of karma. 
It abides in the form of self in all sentient creatures.  Are the devas 
sentient?  Yes, then there is no reason they couldn't realize their own 
true Brahman nature.

Another argument is that spiritual beings like the devas have no bodily 
form which could be used as the instrument of action.  Sure they can 
temporarily take up bodies (e.g. to be present at the yajna) but those are 
arbitrary, not their true forms.  It would be absurd if they got moksha in 
one body and not in others.  So they are ineligible just as the blind, 
lame etc. are.  The counter to that argument is that even a temporary form 
is good enough to perform actions.  Furthermore the shastras show us that 
devas have some fixed attributes beyond any accidental temporary ones they 
may take.  For instance Brahma has four heads, Varuna carries the pASha, 
Indra the vajra, Yama the danda etc.  If e.g. Indra had any random shape 
the yajamana would not be be able to mentally focus on Him as an object of 
prayer or meditation.  Also the shastras show examples of humans 
conversing, learning from, or otherwise interacting with the devas.

Now we finally get to the passage you quoted.  The purvapakshin attempts 
to show that the descriptive portions of the shastras are only figurative 
arthavada and not to be taken literally because e.g. nowadays we don't see 
people talking with the Devas.  Shankaracharya replies that just because 
something is not happening now hardly means it could never have happened 
at all.  He observes that such an argument leads to a slippery slope. 
After all, the Mimamsaka could say that injunctions which he is so 
interested in such as those related to varnashrama dharma are also not 
performed strictly to the description in the shastras these days.  Does 
this mean they were never observed properly in the past?  Does that mean 
they are not to be taken seriously?  No, imperfect men in imperfect times 
may fall short of the ideal but the problem is with them not the ideal. 
In the same way if we cannot know the devas as intimately as the eminent 
sages of the past, the fault is with us not them or with the shastras who 
describe their deeds.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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