The Being of Satchidananda: Sankara’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras
by Vijaya Rajiva on 23 Mar 2017 8 Comments

Indian philosophy has always been preoccupied with the question of what or who is the Ultimate Reality behind the everyday experiences of life and what is the human relationship to this reality? This question was broadly framed: does such an Ultimate Reality exist, what is its nature and how do humans relate to this reality?


The quest began with the Veda, the collective name for the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), the prose commentaries of the Brahmanas, the forest treatises referred to as Aranyakas, ending with the Upanishads. The quest continued with the various writings on Vedic ritual such as Jaimini Sutras and the contemporaneous attempt by Badarayana to unify the teachings of the Veda in his Brahma Sutras. This was followed by many commentaries (Bhashyas), the most famous of them being the Bhashya of Adi Sankara (8th century CE) and Ramanuja (13th century CE).


Shortly after the end of the Vedic period, there arose the philosophical systems (Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Yoga, Jaina, Carvaka and Bauddha, which were independent philosophical enquiries into the nature of Ultimate Reality). Among these systems only the Carvaka was dismissive of philosophical speculation on the nature of Ultimate Reality and offered a purely materialistic explanation of life and its problems.


Among these systems the Sankhya system alone accepted the authority of the Veda and in fact used the Veda to uphold its philosophical position that there are two independent ultimate realities, the inactive intelligent Purusha and the active non intelligent Pradhana (Prakriti/Nature) and these two realities interacted to produce the universe and its beings. This position is known as Dualism.


Collectively, these systems challenged the Veda and its emphasis on Brahman/Satchidananda as the one Ultimate Reality. Satchidananda is a compound word that describes Sat (that which exists), Chit (that which is Conscious) and Ananda (that which is Blissful). The system known as Vedanta upheld the unity of Satchidanda and hence was non dualistic or Advaita. It became the central theme of Adi Sankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, and may be said to have laid (along with his interpretation of the Upanishads) the foundation of Advaita Vedanta. In the commentary, Sankara refers to Brahman (the Upanishadic word for Satchidananda), thus following Badarayana. On this interpretation there is only one reality, Brahman, which is the origin, subsistence and dissolution of the universe.


While it is customary to focus attention on the differences between Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism) and Ramanuja’s Vishistadvaita (Qualified Dualism), here we shall briefly examine Sankara’s theory of the Being (Sat, that which exists) of Satchidananda as seen in his Commentary.


Following Badarayana, he describes Brahman as the origin, maintainer and dissolver of the world and that it is the sole reality (no second one exists). This rejects the Sankhya theory that there are two independent realities, Purusha and Pradhana (Prakriti). It is also a spiritual-conscious reality and hence it rejects the materialism of Carvaka, namely that the world is simply a material entity. It rejects the Nyaya-Vaisekha theory of the separate reality of the material world as evolving from atoms. It also rejects the Jaina and Bauddha theories.


Where Sankara’s Commentary on the Brahma Sutras is completely clear is his argument that Brahman as Self (Paramatman) is the cause of the world in a special sense. That world is not independent of Brahman and in fact has been created by Brahman as part of its magical power (Maya) and to that extent is illusory, has no independent reality.


Readers will note that it is precisely here that Ramanuja differed from Sankara. He argued that the magical power is real not illusory and that the individual Selves (jivas) and the world of many beings are a modification of Brahman. However, this position seems to be a misrepresentation of Sankara’s position, which as pointed out, is arguing that the world is not an independent reality but is the result of the magical, abundant power of Brahman. The word Maya carries the meaning of ‘abundance’.


In the traditional misreading of Adi Sankara’s position, it has been argued against him that the vivarta doctrine (that Brahman’s change is illusory) is contradictory and that parinama (real change) alone can explain the world. However, in the Commentary it would seem that what Sankara is emphasising is that for humans (individual jivas) to think that they are independent realities in relation to Brahman is Ignorance or Nescience. Understanding this is Liberation. Hence the Upanishadic truth that this Atman is Brahman (ayam atma brahma).


The achievement of the Commentary is the refutation of dualism, specifically the Sankhya argument that Pradhana and Purusha are two eternal coexisting realities, with Pradhana or Prakriti being active but non intelligent, and Purusha being inactive but intelligent. Sankara’s refutation is done through showing that Sankhya is misrepresenting the Veda.


Sankhya is misrepresenting the Veda:


1. The enquiry into Brahman with which the Brahma Sutras begin propounds the following aphorism:

‘Brahman is that from which the origin &c (the origin, subsistence, and dissolution) of this world proceed’ (pp.15-16).1.


After pointing out that cause, we say is Brahman, (pps.15-16) Sankara goes on to say:

“The origin, &c of a world possessing the attributes stated above cannot possibly proceed from anything else but a Lord possessing the stated qualities; not either from a non-intelligent pradhana, or from atoms, or from non-being, or from a being subject to transmigration; nor again, can it proceed from its own nature (i.e. spontaneously, without a cause), since we observe that (the production of effects) special places, times, and causes have invariably to be employed”(pps.16-17).


What Sankara means by ‘special places, times, and causes’ is that there is agency in Brahman.


2. Brahman is omniscient and is the source of the Veda (Scripture): Badarayana asserts this and Sankara follows up with this observation:

“Brahmans is the source ,i.e., the cause of the great body of Scripture, consisting of the Rig-Veda and other branches, which is supporting by various disciplines (such as grammar, nyaya, purana, &c); which lamp like illuminates all things; which is itself all-knowing as it were” (pps.19-20).


The theme of illumination will be taken up later when discussing the question of Brahman being self-luminous like the sun. Citing from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad he continues: “The Rig Veda, &c, have been breathed forth from that great Being (p.20). After a prolonged discussion on the means of right knowledge of Brahman, Sankara points out:


“It, therefore, is the task of the Vedanta texts to set forth Brahman’s nature, and they perform that task by teaching us that Brahman is eternal, all-knowing, absolutely self-sufficient, ever pure, intelligent and free, pure knowledge, absolute bliss” (p.25).


He goes on to say that sastra teaches devout meditation on this Brahman and from this results final release from samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth)


3. Final Release:


What does Sankara mean by final release? He quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad II,4,5: ‘The Self is to be heard, to be considered, to be reflected upon’. By Self he means Paramatman, the Universal Self. We see from this passage, says Sankara, that consideration and reflection have to follow the mere hearing (p.26). Hence, devout meditation and reflection will ensure final release from samsara:


“Release is an eternally disembodied state. It is eternal in the sense that it does not undergo changes, is omnipresent as ether, free from all modifications, absolutely self-sufficient, not composed of parts, of self-luminous nature (p.28).


Furthermore, release follows immediately on the cognition of Brahman: ‘He who knows Brahman becomes Brahman’ Sankara quotes from Mu.Upanishad, II,2,8 (p.29).


4. Brahman as omniscient Knower:


Brahman is the eternal Knower, simultaneously existing and all knowing. It is also blissful. Brahman’s Being and Consciousness are simultaneous and identical.


The Significance of Sankara’s Refutation of Sankhya:


In our times the idea that Pradhana (Nature) is active but non-intelligent is outlandish and outmoded. Even modern science recognises that Nature is a complex interaction of matter and energy. Sankara’s non-dualism, the affirmation of Satchidananda emphasises that Consciousness is Brahman (prajnanam brahma) and that this Consciousness is all pervasive. Contemporary physics, especially Quantum Physics, no longer operates only with the matter-energy-space-time complex, but has focussed on the role of the observer in experiments and hence the role of Consciousness.


Quantum Physics now works with the concept of a living, conscious universe. Non duality is the key word in contemporary physics.


A living conscious universe is one and in Adi Sankara’s view it is the Being of Satchidananda.



1. All references are from George Thibaut’s translation of the Vedanta Sutras, Part 1, The Sacred Books of the East, at Google Books, Volume 34, Oxford University Press.

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