This post will look at the classical Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya and how he dealt with some basic questions of epistemology and soteriology. The presentation will stay close to what Shankara actually said and avoid speculative interpretations of his thought, such as how Advaita Vedanta might be meaningfully adapted so as to suit the needs of modern Westerners. For the most part I will draw upon Shankara's commentaries on the Brahma Sutra and Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, perhaps his most important works, but I will also refer to his other writings. What follows will consist of translations of some of the more pertinent meta-theoretical discussions in Shankara's works followed by commentary upon selected passages. At times, I have modified and condensed Shankara's discussions so as to clarify their meaning. The translations are often not literal but I think I have faithfully encapsulated Shankara's sense. I invite readers to consult the standard translations of Thibaut and Madhavananda, both of which are fairly reliable.
I. Epistemology and Authority
Shankara begins his introduction to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad by delineating the domains of revelation and worldly knowledge. With respect to the former, he says the Vedas have authority in two areas: with regard to the knowledge of the brahmanic ritual, which ultimately aims at attainment of the heaven-world (svarga), and with regard to soteriological knowledge, which aims at the highest end of man -- release (moksha). Here, Shankara acknowledges that the Vedas do not have authority in the worldly domain of practical affairs:
The Vedas are devoted to teaching the correct means to attain what is beyond the range of reason or perception. As for matters within the range of worldly experience, perception and reason alone are valid but not the Vedas.... Thus the Upanishads give instruction about the Self...
Because the Self transcends the worldly means of knowledge, it is only known by way of revealed scripture (shruti; agama), i.e., the Vedas (Brahma Sutra Bhasya 1.1.3; 2.1.3; 2.1.6; Brhad Up Bhashya 3.3.1; 3.9.26; 4.4.20; 4.4.22 etc.). Specifically the Self is known through those scriptures that teach about the nature of the Self, i.e., the Upanishads. The other means of knowledge, such as reasoning, can help in the imparting of such knowledge, but they are not valid sources of knowledge about the nature of the Self when they are not guided by scripture.
Early in Shankara's introduction to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, an objector asks if the self is not known from perception:
Interlocutor: Is not the existence of the self a matter of perception (pratyaksha)?Here, Shankara makes use of one of his favourite arguments against the worldly means of knowledge. When the worldly means of knowledge are extended beyond their legitimate application and delve into areas that are not their domain, they descend into conflict. Here, he points out that the nature of the self cannot be a matter of perception since we find so many different theories as to the nature of the self. If it were simply a matter of perception, we would not find so many different theories.
Answer: No, for we see a divergence of views (vadi-viprati) on the matter. The Buddhists and materialists, for example, dispute the existence of the self. So it cannot be a matter of perception for no one disputes the existence of a real object before oneself, like a jar held in one's hand.
The question of the perception of the self is also raised in the opening sections of the Brahma Sutra commentary. There, Shankara says that though the Self, or brahman, is a reality (vastu), it is not an object (vishaya) of knowledge. At Brahma Sutra 1.1.2, an interlocutor suggests that if brahman is a reality, it ought to be an object of perception:
Interlocutor: Well then, if brahman be a real thing it should be amenable to the means of knowledge like perception (pratyaksha).
Answer: No, for brahman is not an object of sensory (indriya) perception.
The primary reason that Shankara gives as to why the Self cannot be seen is that it has no form (rupa). But generally, Shankara holds that the Self cannot be an object of knowledge because the Self is the pure subject (vishayin), and as such, it cannot become an object of knowledge. Here, Shankara basically follows the teaching of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which says that the Self, as the Seer (drashtr), is never the seen (Brhad Up 3.7.23) as one cannot see that which is the Seer of sight (Brhad Up 3.4.2).
On the other hand, Shankara likens the knowledge that derives from scripture as akin to perceptual knowledge. On this point, he follows the Brahma Sutra itself, which, at 1.3.28, refers to scripture as "perception" (pratyaksha):
Only those who have quelled their conceit (shanta-darpa) and who follow the revealed scripture (shruti) are able to determine the meaning of scriptural passages concerning the nature of the gods and so on, as if they were the objects of perception (pratyaksha-vishaya). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.6)Likewise, Shankara says that scriptures concerned with knowledge of the Self teach by informing about the nature of the Self. In this regard, scriptural knowledge is akin to ostensive demonstration and perception:
But the teachings concerning brahman instruct by merely indicating, in a manner analogous to indicating some object of sight (aksha). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.1)Shankara also says that knowledge of brahman is like direct perception in that the cognition of brahman, like perception, is dependent upon a real thing, and not on some human construct:
Knowledge (vidya) of brahman is... dependent upon reality (vastu-tantra), like the other valid means of knowledge such as perception (pratyaksha). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)B. Apperception
But is the Self not known from apperception? Shankara acknowledges that reflexive awareness or apperception (aham-pratyaya, literally, the "I-cognition") can give knowledge of the existence of the self. But apperception cannot give specific knowledge about the nature of the Self. Shankara states that we do indeed know that the self exists from the fact of apperception. But he adds that though apperception demonstrates that the self exists, it does not tell us about the specific nature of the Self. Again, to back this claim, he points to the conflict of opinion as to the nature of the self:
Interlocutor: Is this brahman known to exist or not? If it is not known to exist, then how can we enter into enquiry about something that we know absolutely nothing about?Here, Shankara raises the issue as to what, specifically, the Self is. This is important because the answer to this question will give content to the teaching of the Upanishads and at the same time allow it to be distinguished from other teachings.
Answer: It is known to exist, for brahman is the self of all, and no one says, "I do not exist" (na na aham asmi iti).
Interlocutor: Well, then, there is no need for further enquiry, since the self is known (from apperception).
Answer: No, for there is a conflict of opinion (vipratipatti) as to the specific (vishesha) nature of the self. The materialists think it is the body; some think it is the senses endowed with the quality of sentience; others say that it is merely the stream of cognitive moments; others again say it is empty...and so on. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.1)
At Brahma Sutra 1.1.4, the question as to whether or not the Self is known from apperception is raised once again. Here, the objector wishes to do away with the necessity of scripture. In his answer, Shankara argues from the transcendent nature of the Self:
Interlocutor: It is not necessary to say that the Self is known only from the Upanishads because it is the object of apperception (aham-pratyaya).Here, Shankara makes it clear that the witness is not some kind of reflexive "state of consciousness" or "introspection." As the witness, the Self is the transcendental condition of such states; this is what Shankara means when he says that the Self "sees" or witnesses the I-cognition (aham-pratyaya) and when he speaks of the "Seer of sight." Since the Self is the condition for the possibility of such states, it cannot be known by way of them, any more than a tumbler can stand on his own shoulders.
Answer: No, because the Self is the transcendent witness of apperception. The Self, which is the witness of apperception, cannot be apprehended by any of the other means of knowing such as reasoning.
While Shankara admits apperception, he does not accept the doctrine of apperception (svasamvedana) that the Vijnanavadins epsouse. The Vijnanavadins hold that cognition (vijnana) illumines both its object and itself. Though in a similar manner Shankara refers to the Self as self-luminous (svayam-jyotir), this does not mean transcendental apperception (svasamvedana) for him; it merely means that the Self needs no other of light than itself. At several points in his commentaries, Shankara rejects the possibility of transcendental apperception on the grounds noted above: the Self does not directly intuit the Self because the Self cannot become an object of knowledge, anymore than a eye can see itself, a knife, cut itself, fire, burn itself, or a tumbler stand on his own shoulders.
On the question of whether or not the inner self (pratyag-atman) is known by way of apperception, Shankara is less clear and his statements are somewhat paradoxical. Following Kena Upanishad 1.4, Shankara says that the Self is neither known nor entirely unknown (Upadeshasahashri 1.15.48-49; Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4).
In his comments on Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.2, which states, "we cannot see the Seer of sight," Shankara says it is not possible to see the inner self, which is the "Seer of sight" (pratyagatmanam drsterdrastaram na pashyeh). Elsewhere, in the comments at Brhad Up 1.4.10, an interlocutor asks if it is not contradictory to speak of Self-knowledge when, as the scripture says, we cannot see the Seer of sight. In his response, Shankara says that there is no contradiction. The Self is simply known as the Seer of sight. And when this is understood, the desire to see the Self falls away as an impossiblity (asambhava). Self-knowledge does not mean that the Self is an object of knowledge (vishayi-karana). The same objection is posed in the comments at Brhad Up 4.4.20. There, the Upanishad itself says that the Self is to be understood as eternal and one. It then says that the Self is unknowable (apramaya):
Interlocutor: But it is not contradictory to say that the self is known (jnayata) and then say it is unknowable (aprameya)?
Answer: There is no fault here. When the scripture says that the Self is not an object of knowledge (aprameya) this means that it is not known by any means of knowledge (pramana) other than scripture (agama). Identity with the self that is immediate (sakshat-atma-bhava) is not something that needs to be achieved (kartavya) because it is already existing (vidyamanatvat). For everyone is always already (nitya) identical with the Self (atmabhava).
And yet, at the same time, early in his introduction to the Brahma Sutra, Shankara admits that the inner self (pratyag-atman) does, in a way, present itself:
Interlocutor: How it is that the mind and body can be superimposed upon the Self when the Self is not an object; superimposition only occurs with respect to objects.
Answer: The Self is not absolutely (atyanta) a non-object, since, in a way, it appears as the "object" (vishaya) of the I-cognition, and because the inner self presents itself with a kind of immediacy (aparokshatva).
This last turn of phrase is a reference to Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1, which refers to the self as immediately present (sakshat). In his comments at 3.4.1, Shankara says that this means that the inner self is well known or common knowledge (prasiddha).
In his comments on Gita 2.18, Shankara brings these two conceptions together. Gita 2.18 says that the transcendent reality, or supreme Self, is unknowable (aprameya). Shankara comments as follows:
The Self is unknowable means it is not an object of knowledge; that is, it is not definitely determinable (parichedya) by the regular means of knowledge (pramana) like perception (pratyaksha), etc.Thus, though the Self is known only from scripture, scripture is not "proof" of the Self. The Self does not need of such "evidence" since it is self-established (svatah-siddha). And because it is self-established, it is also well known (prasiddha). As Shankara makes clear in the above, the Self is the condition of the possibility of knowledge; as such, it cannot itself become an object of knowledge. But as the condition of knowledge, it is, in a sense, "known" in all acts of knowledge (see Kena Upanishad Bhashya 2.4). It cannot be seen, and yet it shows itself through a kind of self-presentation whenever there is knowledge.
Interlocutor: The self is determinable by scripture and by perception prior to scripture.
Answer: This is not entirely true, for the Self is self-established (svatahsiddha). Only when the self, as the knower (pramatr), is established (siddha) can the search for knowledge begin. For objects of knowledge are not determinable when the self, as the "I am," is not known. And it is not the case that the self not well known (aprasiddha) to anyone. Scripture, which is authoritative, teaches by merely removing what has been falsely superimposed upon the Self, not by indicating something (entirely) unknown.
Nonetheless, though the Self is known directly (sakshat) in this manner, it is not seen for what it is in itself. As Gita 15.10 says, the deluded (vimudha) do not recognize the (anupashyati) the true nature of the Self. In Shankara's psychology, the individual (jiva) is a combination of the "I-sense" (ahamkara), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), etc., on the one hand, and the inner self (pratyag-atman), the true and essential core of the individual, on the other. As noted above, Shankara calls the inner self (pratyag-atman) the "object" (vishaya) of the I-cognition (aham-pratyaya). What this means is that the I-cognition "denotes" the Self. How so? For Shankara, the Self is of the nature of consciousness, and because of its power to illuminate, is likened to light (prakasha; jyotir). This light illuminates the inner organ (antahkarana) and all objects of knowledge (prameya). The intellect (buddhi) catches some of this light and a "reflection" (chaya; pratichaya; abhasa) of the Self appears in the intellect. This reflection is the basis of the "I-sense." But due to ignorance (avidya), the functions (vyapara) of the inner organ (i.e., mind and intellect) are mixed up (mishra-bhuta) with the inner self (Brhad Up Bhashya 4.3.9). The true nature of the Self should be discernable by way of discrimination (viveka). But because of the conflation (samkirnatvat) of the Self with the mental self, it is not possible to determine (avadharitum) the true nature of the Self (Brhad Up Bashya 2.1.15). Thus, due to non-discrimination (aviveka), the Self is thought to be a knower (pramatr), doer (kartr), enjoyer (bhoktr), etc. when in truth it is none of these. In reality, the Self and its various limiting adjuncts (upadhi) -- the body, senses, vital airs, mind, intellect, I-sense -- are absolutely distinct (vivikta).
It is for this reason that a teaching (upadesha) based upon revelation (shruti) is required. Only in this way can the true nature of the Self be indicated. Shankara's general position is that knowledge of the nature of the Self needs the guidance of scripture. As he says in his comments on Brahma Sutra 4.1.2, the "Thou," in the scriptural formula "Thou are That," initially refers, for the student, to the inner self (pratyag-atman) understood as an agent and so on, but later it is finally ascertained as the nature of pure consciousness (chaitanya). Similarly, in his comments on Gita 8.3, Shankara says that the Self is first (pravrttam) presented as the inner self (pratyag-atman) and later, this presentation culminates (avasana) in ultimate reality (paramartha), that is, in the supreme Self (paramatman). In his comments on the Katha Upanishad, Shankara notes that this "continuum," from the inner self to the supreme self (paramatman), is known as the "adhya-atma." Thus, though the inner self presents itself with a kind of indeterminate immediacy, its true nature can only be indicated by means of scripture.
What about direct experience (anubhava)? Is the self not known through direct experience? While Shankara does admit that the self is known through a kind of direct experience, it is important to note that for him, this experience is carefully circumscribed by the Vedic revelation (shruti). One passage where Shankara speaks explicitly about experience (anubhava) occurs in the opening sections of the Brahma Sutra. He says:
But Vedic revelation (shruti) is not the only valid means of knowledge in the enquiry into brahman; both scripture and direct experience (anubhava) are, since brahma-jnana has its culmination (avasana) in direct experience (anubhava) and because it has an established reality (bhuta-vastu) as its object. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)Wilhelm Halbfass comments on the above: "This passage... is as significant as it is ambiguous and elusive" ("The Concept of Experience," India and Europe). One way to approach the question as to what Shankara means by "experience" here is to eliminate various possibilities.
For one, Shankara is not talking about a spontaneous mystical experience arising independently of the teaching (upadesha) of the Upanishads. Though he speaks of experience existing alongside scripture, he is also careful to say that this experience is the culmination of brahma-jnana. Since he refers to "culmination" here, the term "brahma-jnana" in the above passage refers to both the path of knowledge (jnana-marga), i.e., the inquiry into brahman (brahma-jijnasa), as well as to the final cognition of brahman. For Shankara, and the classical Vedanta in general, such inquiry always occurs in accordance with scripture since the Self can only be known from scripture. Thus, what he is saying here is that a particular cognition, fully comparable to direct experience, is the culmination of hearing (shravava), thinking (manana), and contemplating (nididhyasana) upon the meaning (artha) of the words (vakya) of the Upanishads.
Shankara also does not speak of this "experience" as some sort of "pure consciousness event" like the asamprajnata samadhi of the yogins. He is aware of the existence of such states, and though he associates samadhi with the state of deep sleep, wherein the jivatman temporarily "merges" with brahman, he does not associate brahma-jnana-anubhava with samadhi. We will deal with samadhi and meditation below.
Nor does Shankara refer to his own mystical experience or the personal attainment of extraordinary states of consciousness when he speaks of "anubhava." We may wonder why it is that Shankara does not refer to his own "experience." Similar questions have been asked of Meister Eckhart, Nagarjuna and others. This may strike us as odd, until we realize that the importance of "personal experience" has a relatively recent history. Wilhelm Halbfass comments astutely on this point:
The historically and philosophically significant question is not whether or how Shankara privately valued "personal experience," but why and how he tried to anchor it in a text, the Veda, and how he experienced this text itself as an objective revelation or epiphany that guides and anticipates all legitimate "personal experiences..." "The Concept of Experience," in India and Europe, p. 391.
The allusion to brahma-jnana as a kind of "experience" implies is that brahma-jnana, when fully developed as the final realization (samyag-darshana) of brahman, is akin to the direct perception of a real object, which is precisely what Shankara says in the passage above that speaks of brahman as an established reality (bhuta-vastu). Though this knowledge is direct, like perception, it is not contentless or indeterminate. It has as its content the identity of the inner self (pratyag-atman) with the supreme Self (paramatman). And it is determinate in that it indicates the specific (vishesha) nature (svabhava) of the supreme Self. These two facets are coordinated by Shankara in the first prose portion of his Upadeshasahashri. There, he says that once the qualifications for inquiry are met, the student should be taught the oneness of the Self (2.1.6); and then after this, the specific nature of brahman should be taught (2.1.7). Likewise, in his comments on Brahma Sutra 4.1.2, Shankara says that the experience of the Self (atma-anubhava) consists of the knowledge, "I am pure consciousness, one, and free from all suffering." (sarvaduhkhanirmukta-eka-chaitanya-atmako 'hamityesha atma-anubhavah). Shankara's favorite description of the nature (svabhava) of the Self is the compound "eternal, pure, awakened, and free" (nitya-shuddha-buddha-mukta). This specific nature is important for Shankara because it distinguishes the Advaita Vedantin's conception of self from that of the Buddhists and others.
Though this knowledge is determinate, it is, for Shankara, also immediate or direct, and it is for this reason that he refers to it as an "experience" (anubhava). Shankara likens this immediacy to the recognition or realization experienced by the "tenth boy," who, after counting his party several times to see if they have all safely crossed a river, neglects to count himself and thereby fails to see that he is the tenth -- until it is pointed out to him, "You are the tenth!" The example shows how it is possible for there to be a cognitive realization that is immediate and direct, and yet at the same time determinate, meaningful and with content.
In his comments on Chandogya 7.1.3, Shankara attempts to clarify the nature of this determinacy. The context is one in which there is a question as to how it is that the word "atma" denotes the Self:
Interlocutor: Is the Self not denoted by the term "atma?"
Answer: No. The Self is beyond description; as the Taittiriya Up says (2.4.1), "that from which words are turned away..."
Interlocutor: Then how do words denote the Self?
Answer: Though strictly speaking the Self cannot be denoted, the inner self is "denoted" by virtue of it being the remainder (pratishishta) once the adventitious conditions falsely associated with the Self are negated, just as there is the determinate specification (vishesha) of a king once his subjects are ruled out, even if we do not actually see the king.
But, it may be said, transcendent reality is beyond distinction and differentiation (nirvishesha). How can the Self be so determined? This is one of the central paradoxes in Shankara's thought. In a similar way, Shankara says that the Self is said to be discriminated (viveka) from its limiting adjuncts (upadhi), and that brahman is distinct (vyatireka) from name and form (nama-rupa). And yet brahman and the Self are also said to be beyond difference (abheda). In his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.34, Shankara briefly discusses this problem. There he says that difference (bheda) does not actually belong to brahman but is metaphorically said to apply to the relationship (sambandha) between brahman and its limiting adjuncts (upadhi). In reality, however, there is no real conjunction (samyoga) or contact (samparka) between brahman and its limiting adjuncts, for all relation (sambandha) is but a projection of ignorance (avidya). This same idea underlies the asparsha-yoga described in the Gaudapada Karika: In reality, the Self remains untouched (asparsha) by the effects of ignorance as its true nature is without a second (advaita) and beyond all relation (sambandha).
D. Independent Reasoning and the Conflict of Reason
In the opening sections of the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra, Shankara deals with the Samkhya and Yoga schools. It is this context that he treats reason as an independent means of knowledge. Here, an objection is raised that reasoning is closer to direct experience than scripture:
Interlocutor: Reason (yukti) allows us to determine something unseen (adrshta) on the basis of its accordance (samya) with what is already seen (drshta); in this sense it is closer to, and in accord with (samnikrshyate), direct experience (anubhava). Scripture (shruti), though, is less in accord and more remote (viprakrshyate) since it transmits (abhidhana) its meaning indirectly by oral tradition (aitihya). And, since inquiry (which makes use of reasoning) culminates in direct experience, its result is something seen (drshta), and so reasoning is applicable. Moreover, scripture itself says that the self is "to be enquired into" (mantavya) and thus it enjoins reflection (manana), showing that reasoning (tarka) is applicable. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.4)Shankara gives his answer to this objection in his comments on Brahma Sutra 2.1.6:
Answer: Although brahman is an established (parinishpanna) reality, because it is without form (rupa), it is not within the range (gocara) of perception (pratyaksha); and because it has no inferable marks (linga), it, as such, is not subject to inference (anumana). It can only be known through revealed scripture (agama). As the Katha Upanishad says, "This one cannot be attained through reasoning (tarka)" (Katha Up 1.2.9). And as the Gita says, "Neither the gods nor the maharshis know of my origin" (Gita 10.2). The passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, "the self is to be enquired into," should not be taken as referring to the application of autonomous (shushka; literally, arid or fruitless) reasoning (tarka), but to reasoning in accord with scripture (shruti-anugrhita) and as an auxiliary to direct experience (anubhava).Shankara often points out in his commentaries that independent reasoning gives rise to conflicting theories. He derives this idea from the Gaudapada Karika (3.17), which is, no doubt, influenced by Chandrakirti and Buddhapalita on this point. In his commentary on the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad he writes:
Those logicians who reject the authority of revealed scripture (agama) give conflicting (viruddha) statements about the nature of the self -- that it is a doer, that it is not a doer, that it exists, that it doesn't exist, and so on -- and confound (akulikrta) the meaning of the shastras, and thereby make its purport difficult to grasp. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhasya 1.4.6)Shankara's most developed statement of this idea of the conflict of reason occurs in the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra:
With respect to matters that are only to be known from revealed scripture (agama), independent reasoning (kevala-tarka) is not to be relied upon for the following reason: reasoning (tarka) that is without the guidance of revelation (agama) and instead attached only to human imagination/speculation (purusha-utpreksha) is without basis (apratishtata), because speculation (utpreksha) is without restraint (nirankusha; literally, "without a crook;" the image is of a lost sheep wandering about). For we see that the metaphysical arguments of clever men are shown by more intelligent men to be fallacious, and how these in their turn are refuted by still others; and so, there is no possibility of a foundation for reason (tarka) bereft of the guidance of revelation, because of the diversity of human views (purusha-mati-vairupya) on such matters. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.11)Shankara's language in this passage is much like that used by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya (1.34). As an interesting aside, Bhartrhari also points out that much the same can be said with respect to the various interpretations of scripture. There is also the matter, first pointed out by the materialists of ancient India, that the Vedas themselves make all sorts of contradictory (vyaghata) statements. With respect to the problem of conflicting statements occurring within the scriptures, Shankara's approach toward them is to order them hierarchically in accordance with the principle of "harmonization" (samanvaya). On the problem of the conflict of interpretations of scripture, he is less clear. Although he follows the Mimamsakas with respect to the worldly means of knowledge and with regard to the nature of brahmanic ritual, with respect to ultimate soteriological concerns, he treats the Mimamsakas with the same regard he extends toward the other logicians (tarkika), i.e., with contempt. As for rival interpretations of the Vedanta, his approach is simply to reject the idea that there is any valid interpretation of scripture other than the non-dualist interpretation. He suggests that other interpretations are not "attuned" to the ultimate meaning and spirit of the scriptures, though he often defends his case by means of citation and logical argumentation. In any case, though interesting, such problems are beyond the scope of the present study.
E. The Authority of the Siddhas
As noted already, the second adhyaya of the Brahma Sutra deals with rival schools and sampradayas; in particular, it is concerned with the Samkhya. Its approach is first to question the authority and integrity of the source-texts of these other schools and then to refute their arguments. We have already looked at Shankara's general attitude toward independent reasoning. As for the secondary sources (Smrti), since they are attributed to various sages, the Brahma Sutra's tack here is to question the authority of the founders of these schools:
Interlocutor: Your account does not leave open the possibility of the authority of the Smrti-texts, such as the Yoga Sutras and the Samkhya source-texts, or the authority of rishis like Kapila. The Samkhya is also not concerned with things that are "to be done" but only with true knowledge, which is the means to release. But there is no room in your account for the texts of the Samkhya and so they thereby become meaningless. Since many people cannot understand the meaning of the shruti-texts, they rely on the Smrti-texts, which are composed by recognized authorities (prakhyata-pranatr). And the knowledge (jnana) of such men, like Kapila, is said to be unobstructed (aprahita) like that of the rishi (arsha).Here, we can see that generally, Shankara does not accept the authority of sages who themselves do not recognize the Vedas as ultimately authoritative. This section of the Brahma Sutra is concerned with refuting rival schools on their own terms, but we can see here that where the authority of source-texts is concerned, there is very little that can be said when two parties simply disagree as to which source is authoritative. Shankara's argument here would appear to be that it is inconsistent to say that the Samkhya is not concerned with things that are "to be done" when its own authority is dependent upon its founding sages acquiring various siddhis, which are dependent upon things "to be done." Interestingly, as the passage continues, Shankara accuses the Samkhya of inventing the idea that Kapila was a siddha and then retrospectively reading his authority back into the tradition.
Answer: If we admit your doctrine, then it, in turn, will render other Smrti-doctrines useless (like the "Vedantic" portions of the Gita, e.g.). And it is not possible for someone to perceive (upalabhate) super-sensory (ati-indriya) objects (artha) without the aid of revelation (shrutim-antarena), because there are no means (nimitta) to do so.
Interlocutor: It is possible in the case of siddhas like Kapila because they have unobstructed (aprahita) knowledge (jnana).
Answer: No, because powers (siddhi) such as super-sensory perception are dependent upon certain practices (anushthana) and such practices are characterized by things that are "to be done" (codana). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.1)
In the next passage, Shankara resorts once again to his favorite prasanga-style argument as to why sources other than the Vedas are not authoritative. Having dispensed with the validity of reasoning independent of scripture, he turns to the suggestion that the authority of the sages might serve as a foundation:
Nor can we count on some recognized (prasiddha) sage (mahatmya) like Kapila, since even here there will be no foundation, because the teachings of these recognized sages (mahatmya), as well as the founders of the other schools (tirthakara, i.e., the Buddha, Mahavira, etc.), all mutually contradict one another (paraspara-vipratipatti). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.11)
Elsewhere, Shankara develops this argument, expanding on its implications. He then goes on to contrast revelation (shruti) with the secondary sources (Smrti):
Besides, even assuming that we can trust in the authority of these siddhas, because they instruct by way of so many different doctrines (bahu-siddhanta), their teachings will all be in conflict (vipratipatti) with one another. And then, as people are multiform (vaishvarupa) in their opinion (mati), (if we accept these teachings) the undesirable consequence (prasanga) will follow that truth (tattva) will be unregulated and without basis (avyapasthana). The Vedic revelation, on the other hand, is an absolutely independent (nirapeksham) and self-constituting authority (svarthe pramanyam). But human dicta (purusha-vacasam) are dependent upon an external basis and mediated (vyavahita) by memory (smrti) and discourse (vaktr; literally: 'talkers'). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.1)Here, Shankara relates the term for the secondary sources, Smrti, to its more basic sense: memory (smrti). What he is saying is that memory and verbal transmission form the basis of Smrti. (This is precisely what the interlocutor above had said about scripture, that it requires transmission (aithya).) In his commentary on Shankara's Bhashya, Vacaspati Mishra relates the issue back to the authority of the siddhas and brings "experience" (anubhava) into the equation. His argument appears to be that even though these siddhas may have various transcendent experiences, they are still required to remember those experiences, translate what they mean into a teaching, and then transmit that teaching to students. Here, being human as they are, this process may be fallible. He concludes that experience and memory (anubhvava-smrti) are less direct than scripture. Here, interestingly enough, we do have a explicit reference to the idea that the teachings of certain siddhas may be based upon their "experience." But the context is clearly one in which the authority of the siddhas is in question, which is to say that the need for authority is the actual source of the idea. And it is explicitly denied by the Vedantins that scripture has such a basis.
A. Knowledge vs. Action
Shankara's commentary upon the first four sutras of the Brahma Sutra constitutes his most basic statement of his interpretation of Vedanta. There, the over-riding concern is the relation between action (karma) and knowledge (jnana), duty (dharma) and release (moksha). The next two passages deal with the general difference between action and knowledge. Here, Shankara rejects the idea that the Upanishads teach an injunction to know the Self:
The fruits (phala) of religious duty (dharma) are transitory (anitya) since they are dependent (apeksha) upon the performance of certain practices (anushthana). But the fruit of the knowledge (jnana) of brahman, which is release (moksha), is permanent (nitya) since it is not dependent upon such actions. Religious practices involve that which is to be brought into being (bhavya), and they depend upon human effort and activity (purusha-vyapara). But the object of enquiry here, brahman, is something that is already existent (bhuta), for it is always-already (nitya). Scriptures dealing with religious and spiritual practices instruct people by enjoining (niyujyan) them to act. But the teachings concerning brahman instruct by merely indicating, in a manner analogous to indicating some object of sight (aksha).... Now, the Upanishads teach that the highest end of man is realized by the knowledge of brahman, which destroys ignorance and ends samsara. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 1.1.1)In the next passage, Shankara deals with a rival interpretation of the Vedanta, an interpretation that holds that knowledge in conjunction with action (jnana-karma-samuchaya) is the means to release. Almost all of the other Vedantins of Shankara's period held this teaching. Most of them -- such as Bhartrprapanca, Shankara's principle rival, and later, Bhaskara -- were bheda-abheda-vadins. But Mandana Mishra, the great Advaitin and contemporary of a Shankara, also held a version of this teaching. Here, Shankara is most likely addressing the bheda-abheda-vadins, who held a doctrine of gradual release (krama-mukti) as opposed to the doctrine of release in this life (jivan-mukti):
Things that are "to be done" (kartavya) are dependent upon man (purusha-adhina). But there can be no option (vikalpana) with respect to what is really existing (vastu). Choosing whether to do something or not is entirely dependent (apeksha) upon the human intellect and will (purusha-buddhi-tantra). But the knowledge (jnana) of a real thing as it is in itself (vastu-yatha-atmya) is not dependent upon the mind of man; it is dependent upon the reality of the thing (vastu-tantra).... Just as validity with respect to really existing things depends upon the things themselves, so it is with brahma-jnana; it is dependent upon reality alone, because it has as its object an established reality. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)
Interlocutor: The Vedas instruct about brahman but only in so far as that instruction is connected to injunctions (vidhi) to practice (karya).... Moksha arises due to ritually prescribed devotion and meditation (upasana). If the Vedic revelation only concerns declarations about what is, there will be nothing to be avoided and nothing to strive for (hana-upadana).... Moreover, we see that sometimes those who have only heard (shruta) about brahman continue to be affected by samsara. Moreover the scripture says that the self is not only to be heard, but to be enquired into (mantavya) and contemplated (nididhyasitavya). Therefore, enquiry and contemplation are enjoined by injunctions.Here, Shankara rejects four different soteriological theories concerning the "cause" of release. Though moksha is described as a "fruit" (phala) of knowledge, Shankara does not accept that it is an effect (karya). For the same reason he rejects the idea that it is a "transformation" of the self; nor does it involve some form of purification, though he accepts purification as a secondary, indirect means. He also regards the mental identification of the self with brahman as an artificial mental product. Release is nothing but the realization that the inner self is none other than the supreme Self.
Answer: No. Those who practice the ritual meditations in conjunction with esoteric knowledge only attain as high as Brahma-loka, which is a temporary state.... But moksha is eternal. If moksha were dependent upon such practices and activities, it would be impermanent. And the scriptures say that release follows immediately (anantara) from the knowledge of brahman.... Knowledge of brahman is not dependent upon human activity (purusha-vyapara); it is dependent upon reality, like the other valid means of knowledge such as perception (pratyaksha).... For this reason, moksha is not something attained (prapta), like an effect (karya) brought about (utpadya) in some way; and it does not involve some kind of transformation (vikara) of the self; nor is it a gradual union or mental identification (sampad) with brahman; nor does it involve some kind of gradual purification (samskara) of the self, like the polishing of a mirror. Moksha is nothing but the identity of the self with brahman. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 1.1.4)
In the next passage, an objection is raised concerning the nature of knowledge. Here, as in his introduction to the Chandogya Upanishad, he admits that knowledge involves mental action; but, he insists, knowledge is essentially different from such action:
Interlocutor: But knowledge too is a kind a kind of mental action (manasi kriya).In the above, Shankara provides a rather stark and absolute disinction between knowledge and action. At yet in his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.4.26-27; 33; and 35, he admits a role for action. Some have suggested that Shankara contradicts himself here. But what he is saying is that action is merely an indirect means. Basically, Shankara is constrainted by the Brahma Sutra itself which itself probably held to something like jnana-karma-samuchaya.
Answer: No. The two are different in nature. For such action is not dependent upon the nature of some real thing (vastu); it is dependent (adhina) upon the operation (vyapara) of the human mind (purusha-citta). Meditation (dhyana) and consideration (cintana) are mental (manasam), but because they are dependent upon man, they can either be performed or not. But knowledge has as its object a real thing (bhuta-vastu); it is not something man-made, but relates to reality only. It is not grounded in injunctions (codana), nor is it dependent upon the merely human. Thus, although knowledge involves the mental (manasatva) it is completely different from it. The mental state involved in the meditation "man and woman are the fire" described in the ritual portions of the Vedas is a human activity since it is dependent upon injunctions (codana). But the cognition (buddhi) of fire itself is not dependent upon the injunctions of the Vedas nor upon anything man-made; it is dependent upon a real thing, which becomes an object of perception. It is thus a form of knowledge (jnana) which is not like an action (kriya). The self is not something to be strived after, nor does it involve avoiding anything; and the knowledge concerning it is not something that needs to be performed or effected. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)
Shankara's commentary on the Gita is important because it is here that he explains the relationship between those means that he does not consider direct and those means he does consider direct. In his introduction to the Gita, he states this relationship clearly:
When the Lord created the world he first made Prajapati and others and had them to practice the dharma of the path of action (pravrtti). He then created others and had them adopt the dharma associated with the cessation of action (nivrtti) characterized by knowledge (jnana) and renunciation (vairagya). This twofold Vedic dharma sustains the cosmos and leads to both prosperity and happiness on the one hand, and the highest end of man, moksha, on the other... The aim of the Gita is the highest end of man and the cessation of samsara. This comes about by devotion to knowledge (jnana-nishta) and the renunciation of karmic action. The path of action leads to prosperity in this world and rebirth in the deva-lokas. But when it is practised with complete devotion to the Lord and without any expectations (abhisamdhi) concerning its fruits (phala), the path of action is conducive to the purification of the heart, mind and intellect (sattva-shuddhi). The one whose inner organ has become clear and pure (shuddi-sattva) qualifies for the path of knowledge (jnana-nishta), which leads to the arising of knowledge (jnana). Thus, the path of action, too, is also a kind a means (hetu) to the highest end of man.
Here, Shankara admits a role for those yogas other than jnana-yoga or "devotion to knowledge" (jnana-nishta). Ultimately, they prepare the aspirant for the path of knowledge. In his Gita commentary, Shankara implies a distinction between nivrtti-marga and moksha-marga. He allows room for the various yogas of the Gita by assigning them a place in the moksha-marga. But these "means" are, nonetheless, ultimately distinguished from jnana-marga, which, properly speaking, is the only direct means to release.
II. The Threefold Means
In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, we read that the Self is to be known through hearing, thinking, and contemplating. In his commentary upon the Taittiriya Upanishad Shankara states that these three are to be considered direct means to release:
While austerity (tapas), celibacy (brahmacharya), and so on, are aids to purification, they are not direct means to release, while hearing, consideration, and contemplation of the meaning of the shastras are direct means to moksha. (Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashya 1.11.2-4)
Perhaps the first point to be noticed here, is that consideration and contemplation are to be practiced strictly in accordance with what has been "heard" (shruta), that is, in accordance with scripture (shruti). Meditation is not, for Shankara, some kind of "experimental" method. It is only used to confirm the truth of scripture:
Realization is not possible through independent reasoning (anumana), nor any of the other means of knowledge (pramana), though reasoning is applicable so long as it does not contradict (virodha) the Upanishads (vedanta-vakya). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)We have disussed the role of reasoning in the inquiry into brahman (brahma-jijnasa) above and will discuss contemplation, meditation and yoga in greater detail below. Before continuing it should be pointed out that "discussion" is one of the senses of the term "vichara." Thus, when Shankara speaks of "vichara" we can also take it as referring to discussion:
Just as enquiry (manana) through reasoning (tarka) must be accord with scripture (agama), so too contemplation (nididhaysana) must be in accord with scripture and with what has been determined through enquiry. The idea of contemplation being something independent and separate (prthak) is meaningless (anarthaka). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 5.5.1)
The realization (avagati) of brahman follows from ascertaining (adhyavasana) the meaning (artha) of pertinent passages (vakya) from the Upanishads after their consideration and discussion (vicharana). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.2)
Shankara often talks of the role of the teacher (acharya) in instruction and the compounds "acharya-agama" and "shastra-acharya" occur throughout his works. In his commentary upon the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad he refers to the value of discussion:
Another traditional means of acquiring knowledge (vidya-prapti-upaya)... is association with those in possession of knowledge (vidvat). Association with these sages and discussing (vada-karana) with them increases one's understanding (prajna-vriddha). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 3.1.1)
Some matters... are difficult to understand, even for a group of panditas let alone someone by himself. Where the determination of subtle matters (dharma-sukshma) is concerned, it may be desirable to seek counsel (parishad), depending upon the abilities of those involved. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 4.3.2)
The next question to consider is whether inquiry and contemplation are necessary. Frankly, here, Shankara is not entirely consistent. At one point in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, he says that hearing is not enough:
The self is first to be heard (shrotavya), from scripture (agama) through a teacher (acharya), then considered (mantavya) through reasoning (tarka), and then contemplated (nididhyasitavya), that is, meditated upon (dhyatavya) with determination (nishchayena). It is seen (drshta) by the accomplishment of these means (sadhana), hearing, consideration, and contemplation. When there is the coincidence of these three, then the vision of truth (samyag-darshana), the oneness of brahman, can occur, but not otherwise, that is, with mere hearing (shravana-matra). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 2.4.5)In his comments above, Shankara may simply be constrained by the content of the passage he is commenting upon. The overwhelming evidence, however, is in favour of the interpretation that hearing, in some cases, is sufficient:
Interlocutor: But hearing (shravana) about brahman needs to be followed by consideration (manana) and contemplation (nididhysana).
Answer: Not necessarily. Reflection and contemplation only serve the end (artha) of realization (avagati), just as is hearing does. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 1.1.4)
This point is reiterated by Shankara when he deals with the issue of repetition. In the Upadeshasahashri, the value of repetition is raised:
The means to moksha is knowledge. It should be repeatedly imparted until it is apprehended by the student. (Upadeshasahashri 2.1.2)
A passage from the Brahma Sutra commentary deals extensively with the issue of repetition. At the end of the passage, Shankara admits that for some, "hearing" is sufficient. Basically, the interlocutor argues that if brahman is like an object of perception, like a jar sitting on a table, of what use is repeated instruction? If you point out a jar to someone and they do not understand what you mean, what good will pointing it out again do?
Interlocutor: Of what use is repetition when the object of knowledge, the supreme brahman, is an established reality.... If the passage "Thou are That" does not impart knowledge the first time, what good will repetition do?
Answer: For the one who is unable to experience the true nature of brahman at first, repetition is useful. In the Chandogya Upanishad, for example, Svetaketu asks to be instructed several times.... For we see that some people only gradually come to a true understanding of the meaning (artha) of what they have heard by the removal of false understanding.... People wrongly superimpose various objects onto the self -- the body (deha), the senses (indriya), the mind (manas), and the intellect (buddhi). Thus by one act of inquiry, one of these parts is removed and by another act, another part is removed, and so on; and thus a kind of gradual cognition takes place, though it is prior to the actual cognition of the Self. But for those with an acute intelligence (nipuna-mati), the meaning of such phrases is not clouded over with ignorance, doubt and wrong knowledge, and they are able to intuit (anubhavitum) the meaning the first time they hear it; for them repetition is not needed. For once knowledge of the Self arises, ignorance is dispelled and in that case, gradual understanding is not necessary. (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 4.1.2)
From this passage, it can be seen that Shankara admits a kind of subitism wherein enlightenment (atma-bodha) can happen "all at once."
III. Meditation and Contemplation
In his commentary on Brhadaranayaka Upanishad 1.4.7, Shankara considers various soteriological means other than knowledge of the Self. There, various forms and aspects of meditation, contemplation and yoga are discussed. One form of meditation that he rejects as not conducive to release is "upasana," a term used collectively to refer to the meditations, devotions and rituals of the jnana-karma-samuchaya Vedantins. We have seen how Shankara generally deals with the jnana-karma-samucaya-vada in the opening portions of the Brahma Sutra commentary. In his commentary on the Brhadaranayaka Upanishad he deals repeatedly with this interpretation of Vedanta, as well as with the brahmanic ritualists in general.
In the next passage, the jnana-karma-samucayin suggests that the Upanishads provide an injunction to practice a particular form of meditation (upasana) and that this meditation creates a special knowledge through which the Self is known:
Interlocutor: Ritually prescribed meditation (upasana) generates another knowledge, a special state of consciousness (vishishtam vijnana-antaram), and it is through this, and not merely through hearing scripture, that the Self is known.
Answer: This is wrong. The Vedic teaching, "the self is to be meditated upon" is not an injunction, and it does not enjoin this form of meditation, for nothing is to be done either inwardly or outwardly with regard to the Self. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.7)
Again, it is apparent that Shankara admits that in some cases, hearing is sufficient. In the above, Shankara reiterates that knowledge is not something "to be practiced" and that nothing needs "to be done" with respect to it.
This line of interogation continues in the following tract. Shankara begins by rejecting the idea that yoga is necessary to first calm the mind:
There is no other way to silence the mind than knowledge of the self and its continuous remembrance (smrti)... And no effort in involved in this...Here, we encounter the idea that no effort is involved in knowledge of the Self. This idea is related to Shankara's suggestion that knowledge of the Self is like a form of perception. The idea is that no effort is required to see a jar that is before one, as long as the line of sight between oneself and the jar is not occluded. A more developed presentation of this idea is given in the Gita Bhashya:
Interlocutor: Is not the continuous (samtana) remembrance (smrti) of cognition (vijnana) of the self something different from knowledge arising from hearing and hence something enjoined?
Answer: No; and the remembrance of the self arises spontaneously. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 1.4.7)
The self is not something unknown to us at any time. It is not something to be acquired.... In this sense, for those who qualify, the devotion to knowledge (jnana-nishta) is easy... It is not for the knowledge of brahman that any effort (yatna) is required as something "to be done" (kartavya); it is only required for the cessation (nivrtti) of the false cognition of the Self, that is, of what the Self is not. (Gita Bhashya 18.55)
At this point, a consideration of what Shankara means by "contemplation" (nididhyasana) might be helpful. Generally, in English, the terms "meditation" and "contemplation" are used synonymously. And yet, the senses of the Latin terms "meditatio" and "contemplatio" are very different. Basically, the distinction between the two is the distinction between thinking and knowing, ratio and intellectus, or as the Greek has it, logos and nous, dianoia and episteme. In this sense, the terms "meditation" and "contemplation" make for useful translations of the Sanskrit terms "manana" and "nididhaysana." This distinction parallels Shankara's comments at Gita 3.42. There he distinguishes the functions of mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi). Mind (manas), he says, in involved in thinking (samkalpa/vikalpa), while intellect (buddhi) is concerned with ascertaining (nischaya). As noted above, Shankara asscociates contemplation (nididhyasana) with determination (nischaya).
That "nididhyasana" is actually a kind of knowing is also apparent in Shankara's own comments. The reference above to the "continuous (samtana) remembrance (smrti) of cognition (vijnana) of the self" (Brhad Up Bh) would appear to be a reference to contemplation (nididhyasana). This turn of phrase can be compared with the following two excerpts from his commentary on the Gita:
Meditation (dhyana) consists in a continuous (samtana) uninterrupted (avicchina) cognition (pratyaya), like a stream of flowing oil. (Gita Bhashya 13.24)
Devotion to knowledge (jnana-nistha) is intent application toward effecting the continuous (samtana) cognition (pratyaya) of the inner self (pratyag-atman). (Gita Bhashya 18.55)
Indeed, at times, Shankara omits the third "means" altogether and simply refers to the cognition of the Self in its place:
Through knowledge of brahman we become brahman, that is, through having heard (shrutva) from scripture (agama) and through a teacher (acharya), having considered (mantva) it through reason (tarka), and having cognized (vijnaya) it directly (sakshat). (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 2.5.15)
To close this subsection, I would like to make a general comment about the nature of inquiry and meditation in the soteriology of Shankara. In modern Western appropriations of Advaita Vedanta, there is, among some, a tendency to regard "spiritual inquiry" and "meditation" as involving a kind of special, "supra-mental" process that somehow transcends "mere thought" and "intellection." I would suggest that this attitude arises from the fact that in modern Western appropriations of Advaita Vedanta, inquiry and meditation are lifted from their original, classical Indian context, a context that anchored such practices in scriptural revelation. For Shankara, there is nothing special or "transcendental" about inquiry or meditation as such. What sets his form of inquiry and meditation apart is that they are guided by the Vedic revelation. As far as he is concerned, inquiry and meditation become "special," if you wish, when they are in accord with scripture. But in certain forms of modern spirituality, reliance upon scriptural revelation is seen as "dogmatic." In that case, however, something is will be missing, something that distinguishes "inquiry" and "meditation," something that sets it apart from mere worldly "ratiocination." It is for this reason, I would suggest, that "inquiry" and "meditation" have come to be seen as some kind "esoteric" cognitive process. My point here is simply that this kind of mentality is missing in the soteriology of Shankara. Thinking and contemplation are what they are. When they are in accord with revealed scripture, they are valid means to knowledge of the Self; and when they are not in accord, they are not valid.
V. The Role of Yoga
Generally, Shankara rejects the idea that the classical yoga of Patanjali plays a direct soteriological role in the final end of man:
Interlocutor: Several Upanishads have enjoined (vihita) yoga as a means to the realization of truth (samyag-darshana). The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad itself implies meditation when it says, "the self is to be heard, considered and meditated upon." And the Yoga-shastra says that yoga is the correct view (samyag-darshana).
Answer: No. The Yoga tradition is only partly true. And yoga as such is not a direct means to the highest state. Only the knowledge (vijnana) of the oneness of the self (aikatmatva) as revealed by the Vedas gives moksha. The Samkhya and Yoga, which are dualist (dvaitin), do not reveal the oneness of the self (atmaikatva). (Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.3)
In his commentary on Brhadaranayaka Upanishad 5.5.1, Shankara speaks briefly of Patanjali's yoga:
Interlocutor: What about controlling the fluctuations of the mind-stuff (citta-vrtti-nirodha). Is it not enjoined?
Answer: No, and it is not a means to moksha. There are no other means to the attainment of the highest end than brahma-atma-jnana. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya 5.5.1)
On the other hand, with respect to Shankara's attitude toward yoga, there are two passages in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya that stand out as anomalies. In his comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.24, Shankara says that in perfect concentration (pranidhana), certain yogins see (pashyanti) the Self, free from all plurality (prapancha) and they do so by means of absorption (dhyana) and devotion (bhakti). He then goes on to refer to those passages from the Katha Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad and Mahabharata that speak of "seeing" the self while in meditation or through the purification of the mind. His commentary here parallels comments made at Brahma Sutra 3.2.5. There, Shankara says that occasionally, the supreme Lord (parameshvara) dispels the ignorance of those who meditate devotedly (abhidhyayate) on the Him and through his grace (prasada) these yogins are given extraordinary powers of "sight."
How are we to understand such passages? First, I think it is important to note that Shankara is, once again, constrained by the content of what he is commenting upon. This is to say that he is required to follow what the Brahma Sutra says here. But I think we can also understand what he says in light of his more attitude toward yoga as found in his commentary on the Gita.
In his comments on Gita 2.10, Shankara distinguishes karma-yoga and jnana-yoga. This parallels the distinction made by the Gita itself between Yoga and Samkhya. Here, "karma yoga" is used in a general sense to refer to any yoga of action. But in his comments at Gita 2.39. Shankara divides this yoga into karma-yoga proper and samadhi-yoga. In a similar manner, at Gita 6.2, Shankara distinguishes karma-yoga from dhyana-yoga. Now by "karma-yoga," we not mean the free giving of one's time to peel potatoes for the communal ashram, or charitably volunteering one's services at Mother Theresa's orphanage. Here, the term "karma" refers to the prescribed rites of brahmanism and "karma-yoga" means performing those rites while remaining detached (asanga) from their fruits (phala).
In his commentary on chapter 12 of the Gita, Shankara provides further distinctions. At 12.10-11 he distinguishes mere karma-yoga from karma-yoga practiced in conjunction with bhakti. And in his comments running from 12.6-9, he distinguishes mere dhyana-yoga from dhyana-yoga practiced in conjunction with bhakti. Thus, in his commentary on the Gita, Shankara provides a kind of hierarchy of yogas: karma-yoga; bhakti-karma-yoga; samadhi-yoga; and bhakti-samadhi-yoga.
This being the case, I take the comments at Brahma Sutra 3.2.24 and 3.2.5 as referring, in a conciliatory manner, to the practice of bhakti-dhyana yoga. Shankara acknowledges that in the case of some of those who practice this form of yoga, the Lord grants special powers of insight. But this yoga is still, properly speaking, only propaedeutic to jnana-yoga for Shankara. As we read on in his commentary, he makes it clear that such practices are still within the domain of duality. As he says in his comments at 3.2.6, the self is in fact not distinct from the Lord. And as he says at 3.2.25, there is, in truth, no one meditating and no one being meditated upon, as the Upanishads only really teach non-difference. In the end, then, though Shankara acknowledges the practice of yoga in this manner, it remains subordinate to the knowledge of the oneness of the self and brahman, which for Shankara, is the only true means to release.
For further discussion on the role of samadhi in Shankara's thought, see Micheal Comans' article "The Question of the Importance of Samadhi in Modern and Classical Advaita Vedanta"
This concludes the series of posts introductory to the forthcoming series on Neo-Vedanta.