[Advaita-l] Paul Hacker on Avidya in Brahma Sutras

Venkatraghavan S agnimile at gmail.com
Mon May 16 09:42:58 EDT 2022


It appears that Hacker's conclusion that avidyA is the same as adhyAsa
rests on the bhAShya sentence "tametam evamlakshaNam adhyAsam paNDitA
adhyAseti manyante". He concludes from this that according to Shankara,
avidyA is the same as adhyAsa, which differentiates him from later

However, the traditional view is that that sentence does not seek to equate
avidyA with adhyAsa, as Hacker alleges. Rather, it is to show that adhyAsa
is accepted in other systems too. In this interpretation, the word paNDitAh
in the sentence refers to the knowers of yoga, as opposed to advaitins.

This sentence occurs in the adhyAsa bhAShya, whose purpose is to provide
the context and introduction to the brahmasUtra.

Establishing the idea of adhyAsa is necessary, because the proposition that
"samsAra is a result of this adhyAsa" is the underlying basis of the first
sUtra, athAto brahmajijnAsa.

The first sUtra, athAto brahmajijnAsa, says that an enquiry of Brahman is
to be commenced. It is to be commenced because such an enquiry leads to the
dawn of the knowledge of Brahman. The knowledge of Brahman is to be sought,
because such a knowledge leads to the cessation of samsAra and the
attainment of moksha. For all of this to be true, it must follow that the
knowledge of Brahman leads to the cessation of samsAra.

Now, the knowledge of anything only has the capacity for the eradication of
ignorance. Therefore, if by the eradication of ignorance, samsAra ceases to
exist, it follows that samsAra has to either be ignorance or have ignorance
as its material cause. The destruction of an effect can happen when the
effect is destroyed, or when its material cause is destroyed - e.g. the
destruction of a clay pot is possible when the pot is destroyed, or if the
clay that the pot is made of, is destroyed. As samsAra cannot be ignorance
itself, one is left with the hypothesis that samsAra is an adhyAsa, whose
material cause is ignorance.

Now, the destruction of a nimitta kAraNa, an efficient cause, does not lead
to the destruction of the effect. The death of the potter does not lead to
the destruction of the pot. Therefore, for samsAra to be an adhyAsa, it is
not just sufficient for adhyAsa to have avidyA as its nimittakAraNa. It
requires that avidyA be the upAdAna kAraNa of adhyAsa. It is only then (if
the effect has ignorance as its material cause) that such an effect
(samsAra) is capable of being sublated by knowledge, through the
destruction of its material cause, ignorance.

To prove the possibility of such a hypothesis, Shankaracharya enquires into
the nature of adhyAsa. The first section of the bhAShya raises a doubt that
adhyAsa itself cannot exist. That is refuted by saying that not only does
adhyAsa exist, it is a matter of common experience. The next section of the
commentary provides the definition of adhyAsa as smRtirUpah paratra
purvadRShTAvabhAsah adhyAsah. It is following the definition of adhyAsa
that Shankara writes - " tametam evamlakshaNam adhyAsam paNDitA adhyAseti
manyante". If his intention was to say that avidyA was the same as adhyAsa,
what could be the purpose of such a sentence?  It cannot be his intent to
define adhyAsa as avidyA, because the definition of adhyAsa has already
preceded this sentence.

Therefore, this sentence must have a different meaning than to merely state
that avidyA is adhyAsa. One such interpretation that tradition gives is
that adhyAsa is acknowledged by other systems such as yoga too. That is,
Shankara invokes other philosophical systems to build his case for the
existence of the adhyAsa of the self and the non self.

There are other interpretations of this sentence within tradition too - one
other interpretation is that the effect, adhyAsa, itself is called avidyA,
the cause, by the wise ones. Such a usage is possible because the effect is
non-different to the cause. It is desirable to do this to indicate that
adhyAsa, which is the cause of all evil, can be eradicated by vidyA - and
hence it is a-vidyA, that which is removed by vidyA, knowledge.

Coming back to the view that this sentence refers to the equation of
adhyAsa to the avidyA of the yogi-s - that yoga also refers to avidyA to
mean adhyAsa is acknowledged by Hacker himself in talking of the pancha
klesha-s or five defects being avidyA, asmita, rAga, dveSha, abhinivesha.

However where he differs is in concluding that avidyA used in the advaitin
sense has no place in Shankara's bhAShya-s.

This is a mistaken view because the idea that avidyA cannot be adhyAsa can
be inferred from the first sentence of the adhyAsa bhAShya itself. The
first sentence of the bhAShya responds to the objection that adhyAsa is an
impossibility by saying that adhyAsa  has been naturally occurring, without
beginning (naisargiko'yam lokavyavahArah) - and one cannot deny something
that is a matter of common experience.

In doing so he, uses the phrase "itaretara avivekena..mithyAjnAnanimittah".
Here, we say that the compound mithyAjnAna refers to a mithyA ajnAna. That
is, adhyAsa has a cause (nimittah) which is a mithyA ignorance.

If the compound mithyAjnAna is instead split as mithyA jnAna, false
knowledge, then the phrase mithyAjnAnanimittah would not hold meaning,
because it would mean mithyA-jnAna nimittah adhyAsah. mithyA jnAna, a false
knowledge is nothing but adhyAsa itself. Therefore, mithyAjnAnanimittah, in
this interpretation would mean adhyAsa-nimittah adhyAsah, i.e. the cause of
adhyAsa is adhyAsa, which would be a tautology.

On the other hand, the interpretation mithyA ajnAna nimittah adhyAsah shows
that the material cause of adhyAsa is ajnAna / avidyA, which is of the
nature of mithyA (neither sat nor asat).

It may be asked how does this prove that avidyA is the material cause, the
upAdAna kAraNa, when Shankara uses the word nimittah, which indicates the
nimitta kAraNa, the efficient cause? To this, it is said that the word
nimittah is used in the general sense meaning "cause", and the efficient
cause (the amarakosha says निमित्तं हेतुलक्षणो:, ie it says that words
nimitta, hetu etc are synonymous, meaning cause).

Further, the first sentence already mentions the efficient cause, the
nimittakAraNa  - as itaretara avivekena, ie adhyAsa arises as a result of
the lack of discrimination between the self and non-self. If the nimitta
kAraNa is mentioned, a natural question arises about its material cause,
the upAdAna kAraNa. To answer it, Shankaracharya uses the phrase
mithyA-ajnAna-nimittah, by which he wants to convey that it is avidyA that
is the upAdAnA kAraNa of adhyAsa.

Now if Shankaracharya's intent is that avidyA is the upAdAna kAraNa, why
did he not say mithyAjnAnopAdAnah? Why instead did he use the word nimittah
in the phrase? This is because Shankara wants to convey that avidyA is not
just the upAdAna kAraNa, it is also the nimitta kAraNa of adhyAsa. That is,
avidyA serves as the nimittakAraNa too as a doSha, a defect. That is,
adhyAsa arises due to the defect that is ignorance. It also has a mithyA
ignorance as its material cause. To convey this dual meaning he uses the
word nimittah, to refer to a cause in the general sense.

The interpretation of the phrase mithyAjnAna elsewhere in the bhAShya needs
to have a similar context-based interpretation.

Hacker says that "avidyA for Shankara is more an affliction of the psyche
(klesha) than a cosmic power (shakti)". However, the equation of avidyA
with a klesha is simply Shankara mentioning the position of adhyAsa within
the yogic system as one of the pancha klesha-s.  The contention that avidyA
according to Shankara is not a cosmic power, shakti, is refuted by the
words of Shankara himself.

In the commentary to sUtra 1.4.3, Shankara says - avidyAtmikA hi sA
bIjashaktir-avyaktashabdanirdeshyA parameshvarAshrayA mAyAmayI
mahAsuShuptih, yasyAm svarUpapratibodharahitAh sherate samsAriNo jIvAh -
that causal power (shakti), of the nature of ignorance, denoted by the word
avyakta and located in the Supreme Ishvara, is mAyA. It is the great sleep
in which the jIvas slumber, unaware of their true nature.

Thus, contrary to Hacker's contention, Shankaracharya here specifically
equates avidyA to the cosmic power of Ishvara that creates the universe and
deludes jIva-s into forgetting their own true nature.

I'm sure that if we spend the time to look at each contention by Hacker, it
is possible to reconcile his allegations with the position of the tradition
within advaita. That such a reconciliation is possible is not to fault
Hacker - it is just that on the other side, there is a living, breathing,
teaching tradition, which has the benefit of innumerable advaita thinkers
having considered these ideas over millennia.


On Sun, 15 May 2022, 14:11 Michael Chandra Cohen via Advaita-l, <
advaita-l at lists.advaita-vedanta.org> wrote:

> It seems to me any defense of Mulavidya vada would have to account for
> Hacker's exhaustive study. Sengaku Mayeda performed the same analysis on
> Upadesa Sahasri and came to similar conclusions
> https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nE0s2sFIqc0fYdgto0rGlW16xx6lsNEDJKsWVr6CJPw/edit?usp=sharing
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