[Advaita-l] On the nature of muula avidya

subhanu saxena subhanu at hotmail.com
Sun Oct 30 18:04:51 CDT 2011

Sri Sadananda wrote: 

This write up is
based on my notes of the talk by Swami Paramarthanandaji on 2/11/2011,
summarizing the 3rd chapter of Naishkarmya Siddhi.  

Namaste, I would propose a modification of the order and
content of points mentioned in your note as follows to be more in line with
what Suresvara actually says both in Naishkarmya Siddhi (N.S.) and
Brihadaranyaka and Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashya Vārtikās  (BUBV and TUBV respectively below). I am fully
aware that you have recorded notes based on another person’s talks so please
excuse me if I mis-represent any of the points made. I also make these points
solely for the purpose of ātma-vichāra to aid seekers to deeply
reflect on the teachings of the shāstra
and to encourage them to directly study the vārtikās
of Suresvara to find the meanings for themselves with their teachers. In the
interests of brevity I will only provide full quotations for a few of the vārtikās,
but will give the references for people to look at the source verses
themselves. Some verses have been posted by me in full before. If anybody would
like the original verses and a translation of the verses referenced then please
email me directly so as not to clog up the list: 

1)      Nature of ignorance in Suresvara’s works 

Sri Sadananda:  The nature of fundamental ignorance: Sureswara
says its essential nature is anirvacanIyam or inexpressible. That means it is
sat assat vilakshaNam – It cannot be that it is real or sat, since only Brahman
which is of the nature of  pure knowledge
is real, and Brahman being infinite there cannot be any other reality. Real is
that which cannot be negated at any time and therefore is eternal. Thus
ignorance cannot be sat or real. The ignorance is also not asat or unreal,
since it is experienced by everyone.

Suresvara actually says something different to the above.
Ignorance is purely a mental notion [eg BUBV 2.1.267, BUBV 4.3.1530] of the
nature of mixing one thing for another [N.S. 2.100], because the ātman has not been known through
lack of critical reflection [BUBV 1.4.444]. If one were to open at random the
BUB Vārtikā at any verse then there
is a highly likelihood that you will find a verse within 50 either side that
refers to the lack of critical reflection as the only reason we have not known ātman
.  In fact the only cause for confusion
admitted in Vedānta is that the Ātman  has not been known: 

hi vedāntasiddhānte hyajnātātmātirekataḥ ।

sānkhyānām iva siddhānte labhyate kāraṇāntaram  ॥[BUBV 4.4.179]

in the Vedānta siddhānta, no other cause
exists, other than the unknown Ātman 

is in contrast to other systems such as Sānkhya etc (which postulate a material cause for the universe) 

our ignorance must be notional and not real or some other indeterminate entity
or force, since it would destroy the very basis of the tradition that only
knowledge removes ignorance, for knowledge can only remove a notion, not a
thing or a force. Suresvara echoes his teacher Shankara’s statement in BUB 1.4.10
jnāpakam hi shāstram na kārakam in the following:

jnāpakāni hi shāstraṇi kārakāṇi na kutrachit [BUBV 1.4.1262]

shastras inform and do not anywhere create 

the statement that avidyā  is mithyā+ajnānam, an anirvachīniya shakti is explicitly
refuted in BUBV 1.4.425:

mithyājnānam katham vastu na hi
mitthyeva vastu sat ।

mithyā tad vastu chetyuktir mahatām iva shobhate ॥ [BUBV 1.4.425]

How can Mithyājnānam be an entity since a
false entity cannot exist?

statement that something can be false (non-existent) and also existent befits
only the great 

rare example of quite a sarcastic statement by Suresvara to reject anirvachanīyatā of ignorance, possibly to
show the force with which he wished to make the point. Suresvara is consistent
with his teacher in describing ignorance as having no existence in the past,
present or future at any time: 

tattvamasyādivākyottha-samyagdhī-janma-mātrataH |

saha kāryeṇa nāsIdasti
bhaviṣyati || [S.V. 183]

On the rise of right knowledge from sentences such as tat
tvam asi etc, it is known that ignorance and its effects was not, is not,
and never will be 

Ignorance is simply a notion that is a non-entity that  is opposed to knowledge: ajnānam hi nāma jnānābhāvasya
cha avastu-svābhāvyāt [N.S. III.6] , an error cancelled through knowledge
[N.S. 2.29 and also upadesha sāhasrī 16.62 verse section] and
does not need the status of bhāvarūpam in Suresvara’s works.

So, whenever avidyā
is said to cause something it is of the nature of nimitta-kāraṇam
not upādana-kāraṇam
in Suresvara’s writings, so we have:

Ajnāna-mātra- nimittatvāt [N.S. III.1], and
yannimittam cha sākshitvam  [BUBV 4.3.350]

This is entirely consistent with his teacher Shankara (who
explicitly describes avidyā-nimittam
in Upadesha Sāhasrī    2.51
prose section rather than avidyā-upādānam) , who tells us this fundamental error is of the
nature of mixing one thing for another. The adhyāsa bhāṣyam quotes that describe this innate error that is
ignorance as a superimposition are well known to all : sarvathāpi tu anyasya anyadharmāvabhāsatām na vyabhicharati, and adhyāso nāma
[Adhyasa Bhashyam].  Shankara makes an
even more explicit statement in Upadesha Sāhasrī   2.51
avidyā nāma anyasmin
 ignorance is nothing but the
superimposition of the attributes of one thing upon another. We can see how
adhyāsa and avidyā are used interchangeably
here, as well as in the vārtikās [BUBV 1.4.412, 473] 

So ignorance is merely imagined [BUBV 4.3.402, 436 and many
others], purely notional , described as moha [BUBV 2.1.6], bhrānti [N.S.2.31], mithyādhīh , a false notion [BUBV 1.4.438], of the nature of “I
have not known Ātman ” [BUBV 1.4.173-179, TUBV 2.176 etc]. The word tattvāgrahaṇam has been used also to describe this not knowing, and
previous posts have mentioned that there is no need to infuse this meaning with
the sense of root ignorance, as a literal rendering is sufficient.

 An important corollary to the above is to always remember that
there is no actual entity as anātman
[BUBV 4.3.1521, 4.4.322-327, TUBV 2.369]. 


2)      Suresvara only ascribes anirvachanīyatā
to the name and form imagined through ignorance, in keeping with his teacher

 The name and form imagined through avidyā has been described
by Suresvara as anirvachanīya
however [eg BUBV 1.4. 397-399, 1.4.482]. This is quite in keeping with his guru
eg  BSB 2.1.14 and Upasesha Sāhasrī   1.18 -19
prose section, where we also have the famous salilah-phenavat analogy of foam
and water and the apparent indeterminacy of the name and form of foam fashioned
by ignorance of its true nature. See also BUB 2.4.10 

3) Avidyā
is of the common experience of everyone and does not need to be established by
any pramāṇa

Sadananda: In addition ignorance cannot be proved by any known means of
knowledge, pramANa.  

Avidyā,  itself being
innate, natural and not any form of power/shakti [SV 1088] has no need to be
established through pramāṇas, as stated in the notes of Sri Sadananda, since it is
experienced by all 

atah pramāṇato’shakyā’vidyā’syeti vīkshitum |

kīdrashī vā kuto vā’sāvanubhūtyekarūpatah  || [SV 184]


In fact one can never know ignorance as belonging to anyone,
neither determine its nature, or conceive how it can possibly be at all, since
it is essentially the nature of common experience itself [SV 184]

(Side note: in the vivaraṇam on
the panchapādikā we find an extensive
attempt to establish anirvachaniya avidyā  by various pramāṇas eg
arthapatti, anupalabdhi etc. According to Suresvara this is quite unnecessary)

 4)      The teachings of Shankara’s tradition are
for those who have already prepared themselves for right knowledge via correct sādhanā,
obviating the need for certain questions such as “what causes my confusion?”,
which can serve no meaningful ultimate purpose


If an aspirant is unable to get past the question of what
causes his confusion then a notion of mūlāvidyā could be beneficial
provided the aspirant is clear this is provisional (Sri Subramaniam brought out
in previous posts this point when he affirmed that avidyā  is merely imagined, nothing more, and the notion
of a cause of ignorance, quoting  Citsukhacharya “upachārāt”,
can only be a courtesy for the purpose of teaching) , and that ultimate
knowledge can only come through Sruti vākyam
[S.V 1092] for the qualified aspirant. It is important to not forget that
seeking for a cause keeps aspirants under the clutches of the very adhyāsa they are trying to

This last point is worth a short mention. We must not forget
that Shankara’s teachings were for qualified aspirants who were sādhanā-chatuṣṭaya-sampannāḥ. Such aspirants would already have understood the
independent unreality of the world around them through discrimination of the
real and unreal and would therefore not be troubled by such questions as to
what causes their confusion. In times after Shankara we tend to want to delve
directly into the highest teachings of the Shāstra without necessarily having taken the care to
prepare ourselves for such knowledge through the appropriate sādhanā [which is described in a
step by step manner in N.S. 1.51]. As a result,  seekers can get bogged down in the
intellectual dialectic of why they are confused.  Shankara’s and Suresvara’s writings, in slight
contrast to later vedantins, are more concerned with Brahman than the external
world and its cause. Their focus is less to explain avidyā and more to
eliminate it. One can imagine if such a seeker came to Shankara with such a
question as “well, why am I confused and see the world?”, then Shankara would
have almost said “You are not yet ready, come back when you are!” We get a hint
of this in the dialogue with a student in Upadesha Sāhasrī   prose
section 2, and also the short shrift he gives to questions such as to whose is
ignorance eg BSB iv.1.3, GBh XIII.2. 

5)      Call to action to re-institute the
extensive study of Suresvara’s works

 In summary we can see that a full study of Suresvara reveals
more clearly the profound nature of his teachings which makes it all the more
sad that his works are so neglected these days. For, a complete study of his
works yields a comprehensive picture of the advaita tradition of Shankara, and
also where he is in consonance with his teachers and how he may have differed
from subsequent vedantins.

 Prof AJ Alston makes this pertinent point on his translation
to Naishkarmya Siddhi chapter III which was the basis of the lecture notes of
Sri Sadananda:

and the classical “Vivaraṇa” school which followed him
are concerned with cosmology and with giving some reputable philosophical
account of the external world as grounded in Brahman. Hence they stress mūlāvidyā-causal
avidyā as a kind of
stuff or substance grounded in Brahman whose modifications cause the external
world. Suresvara, by comparison, is less concerned with the external world and
more concerned with Brahman. There is hardly a sentence on cosmology in the
“Naishkarmya Siddhi” (contrast “Panchadashi”), though its author claims it
handles all essential topics. Avidyā
is not so much a substance which transforms itself into the world as an
inexplicable force which hides Brahman. [ie not an anirvachanīya shakti that is the upādāna kāraṇam of
the universe]. In harmony with this we find Suresvara stressing the total
non-existence of the world in the consciousness of the jnāni  (in contrast to  “Panchadashi” , for example). And again in
harmony with the view that refuses to waste time examining avidyā but in a hurry to do away with it, etc” [The
Realization of the Absolute tr AJ Alston, page 142]. We find similar sentiments
from Prof Shoun Hino and Prof Hacker.

 I hope
the above provides some food for thought for aspirants and has shown that a
cursory study of small section of Suresvara’s works may not give a complete
picture of what he really said.  Actually
my main purpose for writing this note was not to lay out whether or not mūlāvidyā
is found in Suresvara’s writings but to simply to make a plea for people to
undertake a direct study of Suresvara’s vārtikās  and Naishkarmya Siddhi for themselves, so they
may directly uncover the treasures therein which will definitely aid their sādhanā





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