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Preceptors of Advaita
SADASIVA BRAHMENDRA SARASVATI
Sadasiva Brahmendra Sarasvati, the mahayogin and jivan-mukta, became a legend in his own lifetime. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a great flowering of the spirit in the Tamil country, especially in the Tanjore region under the enlightened rule of the Nyak and Maharashtra dynasties. Under the aegis of Sahaji (1684-1711) flourished a brilliant galaxy of poets and makers of music, scholars and thinkers who were noted alike for their personal purity and acuteness of intellect. Many of them, including it is believed Sadasiva’s father, were settled in Sahajirajapuram, a royal grant for the encouragement of learning Great saints sojourned among them, providing the inspiration to the higher life. In Sadasiva, all the varied talent of that time of awakening seems to have met and blended harmoniously. His output as a poet and writer in the Vedantic tradition was slender. But he touched the imagination of the people in a unique way, only Bodhendra and Sridhara Venkatesa, affectionately known as ‘Ayyaval’, being comparable to him in this respect.
Many miraculous tales are told about him, but few concrete facts are known. He was the disciple of Paramasivendra Sarasvati, the fifty-seventh head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Sankaracharya Pitha, whose greatness he repeatedly extols. Paramasivendra seems to have been a contemporary of the great poet Nilakantha Dikshita (born in 1612 A.D. or earlier); for his disciple Ramanatha was a contemporary of Ramabhadra Dikshita, the accomplished poet and grammarian, who was a pupil of Nilakantha and won his praise. And Ramanatha’s pupil Nalla Adhvari, a younger relation of Ramabhadra Dikshita, acknowledges in his Advaita-rasamanjari Sadasiva as his spiritual preceptor after his Guru Paramasivendra. So we may take it that Sadasiva was born about the same time as Ramabhadra, in the early years of the seventeenth century.
He mastered all the Sastras at an early age and was a formidable debater. But a mild word of rebuke from his Guru, says tradition, made him a mauni. He spent his time mostly in the secluded peace and charm of the Kaveri banks as an avadhuta; only occasionally emerging, to bestow his grace on some fortunate individual such as Malhari Pandita, who requested him to bless his patron Serfoji (1911-29), who was childless, or Vijaya Raghunatha Tondaiman of Pudukkottah, or passing through the country-side like a silent benediction, radiating kindliness and compassion. He seems to have lived far beyond the Vedic span of a century and attained beatitude at Nerur near Karur on the Kaveri.
And now for a brief survey of his works: Appayya Dikshita’s works had great influence in that age of intellectual ferment and vigorous polemic. His Siddhantalesa-sangraha is a survey of the development of Advaitic doctrines after Sankara. Sadasiva made a verse compendium of it, evidently to serve as a refresher to the serious student engaged in manana. His commentary, Kesaravalli is an integral part of the work. It supplements the text, as well as elucidating it. The verses convey, as the author justly claims, a depth of meaning in simple words. Indeed all his expository work is both concise and lucid.
Of his method in this work we can give but one instance here. The first section of the text treats of a question of Vedic exegetics–whether the study of the Vedanta is enjoined as an apurva vidhi, a niyama vidhi, or a parisankhya-vidhi. Three verses are devoted to the statement of the first and the last views and to the conclusion (Vachaspati Misra’s), which is that there is no vidhi at all involved here. But as there are as many as nine varieties of the view that it is a niyama vidhi, the five major ones are set out in as many verses; while the minor varieties are relegated to the commentary, or altogether omitted, as being but derivatives or extended applications. Thus the seventh verse puts forward the Vivarana view that the injunction is restrictive, aiming at confining the study of the Vedanta to the traditional mode under a Guru by a proper adhikari. And the commentary mentions three possible violations of this injunction, which are prohibited by implications. These are (a) that an intelligent man might be tempted to rely on his own powers of mind to intuit the Vedantic truth, instead of studying and reflecting on it as revealed by the Upanishadic texts; or (b) he might dispense with the guidance of a Guru; or (c) that a dullard might be content to study Vedanta through un-canonical expositions in the vernacular.
In such summary statement there is naturally no room for scholastic subtleties. But this may have the advantage of highlighting the main threads of argument. This is found to be eminently the case in the Brahma-tattva-prakasika, the brief but splendid gloss on the Brahma-sutra. While faithfully adhering to the Bhashya, Sadasiva makes no attempt to follow the master into the fascinating by-paths. To take an instance at random, in explaining the sutras, “It (the Prana) is designated as having five functions, like the mind” (ii-iv-ii), Sankara, after examining and rejecting as unsatisfactory a number of alternative reasons why the word ‘five’ in the sutra as applied to mind should be taken literally, concludes that it is intended merely to suggest, not a specific number, but plurality. Sadasiva skips the discussions and simply states the conclusion and he brings out the Bhashya view of the sutra in these pithy words: “Because of its special and manifold functions, prana is subsidiary to the soul, resembling the mind in this respect.”
The Bhashyakara is occasionally laconic when from the context the meaning is fairly clear; as for example in III, ii, 25, especially when it is considered along with the succeeding sutras 29 and 34 where the word karmani, which he leaves unexplained, obviously refers to the act of wrapt worship (samradhana), which has the adjuncts (upadhis) of dhyana, etc. In fact the Bhamati and its sub-commentaries simply pass over the word. But Sadasiva, following the ratnaprabha, elucidates karmani as dhyanadyupadhau karmani. Apparently he anticipated that there might be people like Thibaut, who, puzzled by the fact that “karmani is as good as passed over by him”, confidently concluded, “It certainly looks here as if the Bhashyakara did not know what to do with the words of the sutra.”
Commenting on II, ii, 37, the Bhashyakara reviews and refutes the schools that maintain that the Lord is only the efficient cause of the universe, not the material cause. Though he includes the Sankhya and the Yoga in this indictment and in this is followed by the Bhamati and its sub-commentaries, Sadasiva in his gloss does not refer to them but takes the attack as mainly directed against the Mahesvaras. This is in all probability due to his view, set out in his work on the Yoga-sutra (described below) in commenting on the Yoga-sutra IV, 3. His view is that the Sankhya does not recognize Isvara at all, holding that the sub-serving of the interest of the purusha alone is the teleological cause of the restarting of the heterogeneous activities of the gunas in pradhana after pralaya; while the yogis, though they do regard Isvara as the final cause, acting in the interests of the purushas, assign to ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’, the role of efficient cause, which is a rather negative one in this system. If the view here put forward is right, it should be clear that Sadasiva could take an independent line when he felt it necessary.
While thus unobtrusively condensing, elucidating, supplementing and qualifying, his main aim in his gloss is to give the student of bird’s-eye view of the system. He brings out the coherence of the thought and the cogency of the argument, showing how, as the teaching develops through all its ramifications, the central thesis, the Brahman-atman equation, is never lost sight of. Particularly helpful is his practice of bringing out the logical connection (sangati), between adhyaya and adhyaya, pada and pada, sutra and sutra. His method of exposition is to set out under each sutra the subject, the doubt that necessitates the enquiry, the consequences that would flow from either of two possible conclusions and the leading arguments in support of the prima facie view and the view that is ultimately arrived at. In beautifully simple verses he sets out the kernel of every major section. The Vritti is thus an ideal handbook for the student.
The Yogasudhakara, an extremely valuable gloss on the Patanjala-sutras, is undoubtedly Brahmendra’s work. But this is the one major work of his, in which he does not anywhere mention Paramasivendra Sarasvati as his Guru. He pays homage, instead, to an unnamed Guru by whose grace, he says, he got the vidya and having “churned it in his mind” (vilodya), wrote this Vritti. Paramasivendra Sarasvati has not left any work on Yoga. The reference to Yoga and Kaivalya in his Dahara-vidya-prakasika suggest, rather, that his primary preoccupation was with the Upanishadic vidyas. Brahmendra may have studied Ashtanga-yoga under some other Guru. We need not be surprised that one who attained the summits of Vedantic realization should have practiced Ashtanga-yoga, for the Bhagavatpada repeatedly points out that the Advaitin accepts such teachings of the yoga and other similar ‘smritis’ as are not opposed to the Vedanta and often refers to the fruits of Ashtanga-yoga1. But Brahmendra, with his Vedantic background and from personal anubhava, seems to have reached conclusions regarding ‘Isvara-pranidhana’ and the state of Kaivalya, which are not strictly in conformity with the orthodox doctrine as expounded in the Vyasa Bhashya and Vachaspati’s gloss, Tattvavaisaradi. While verse 63 of Atmavidya-vilasa says that he is transmitting the Upanishadic vidyas taught by his Guru Paramasiva, his familiarity with Patanjala yoga is clear from other slokas.
Modern scholars have been puzzled by the seeming inconsistency between Yoga-sutra I-23 and Yoga-sutra II-1. ‘Isvara-pranidhana’ and ‘kriya-yoga’, terms which occur in the latter sutra, are interpreted by the Bhashya and the tika as pointing to the well-known Gita teaching of karma yoga. But ‘Isvara-pranidhana’ in Yoga-sutra I-23 is taken by them to mean ‘special adoration’ (bhakti-visesham). Brahmendra, however, interprets the term in the same way in both contexts, as meaning loving devotion only. Sadasiva was a student of the Bhagavata and wrote a Bhagavata-sara. This probably had a decisive influence on his taking to the avadhuta life. He, it seems, made a collection of all the texts bearing on ‘Paramahamsyacharya’. His interpretation of kriya-yoga seems to be based on the rather specialized and restricted significance that term has in the eleventh skandha (see especially Ch.XX-6 to 9 and Ch.XXVII-1 & 9). Taking all the Yoga-Sutras bearing on the subject together, he thinks three grades of authorities are distinguished. To him who cannot free himself from the lure of the world, karma-yoga is prescribed as part of niyama (see comment on II-28, 32 and 45). Yoga-sutra II-1 has in view the man whose mind is rather better controlled though not yet completely purified. Yoga-sutra I-23, applies to the man who has fully succeeded in that. When the mind is purified by devotion to “the Paramaguru who has in sport assumed an exceedingly winsome form”, says Sadasiva Brahmendra (on yoga-sutra II-1), prema-bhakti, the intensified and exclusive devotion referred to in I-23, comes naturally. Pleased with that, the Lord grants the devotee the one-pointed concentration he yearns for and that leads in due course, to kaivalya.
How exactly this works is thus explained in his comment on I-29? Intense and sustained pranava-japa, which is the praise of the Lord, when accompanied by loving concentration on Him, leads successively to the cessation of verbal activity (including japa), the inclining of the mind, by the grace of the Lord, towards quiescence and the detachment of the mind even from Him, for it achieves direct perception of the self (pratyasatti). Recognising the similarity (sadrisya) between the self, “its own master”, which in its pristine state is free spirit (asanga-chidrupa) and Isvara, who is eternally and unchangeably that, it reminds the self of its true status; and then, its task done; it sinks down, like fire that has consumed its fuel. When abhyasa and vairagya have destroyed subliminal impressions, the pratyak-chiti (pure spirit) shines forth, established, says Brahmendra, in language reminiscent of the Upanishads, in its own glory (sve mahimni nirantaram nirvighnam avatishthate). From the above, it will be seen that Brahmendra’s view of kaivalya is closer to the Vedantic conception of mukti, which is eternal bliss, than that of the Sankhya-Yoga, where it means a passionless and passive isolation for the purusha.
This impersonal joy that goes with super-consciousness is in fact the key-note of all the creative work of Brahmendra. His poems and songs represent this totality of experience. Flashes of poetry illuminate the philosophical poems, even as mystical ecstasy communicates itself through an unforced lyricism in the kirtanas. And the golden thread of bhakti runs through them all.
While in a sense all his poems are in adoration of the Guru, whom he looked upon as his God, the short Navamani-mala is specifically in praise of Paramasivendra, “who from the purest compassion bestowed on me the dazzling gem of the Atmavidya”. In the Svapnoditam, he describes how the duality of seer and seen disappeared, “when by the grace of the moon, my Guru, I was submerged in the swelling sea of the chit and I saw naught but Self”. In the beautiful Dakshinamurti-dhyanam, he describes the glorious form of the Paramaguru and how He should be meditated upon as the Nirguna, the One without a second. But the most important work of Sadasiva in this class in his brilliant Guru-ratna-malika in eighty-seven verses which he wrote at the instance of Atmabodha, his fellow-disciple and successor of Paramasiva on the Sankara pitha. Following the Punyasloka-manjari of his parama-guru, Sarvajna-sadasiva-bodha, fifty-sixth head of the Kanchi pitha, he celebrates that long and brilliant succession of yogis and jivan-muktas.
The age in which Sadasiva lived was one of keen theological controversy. His own Guru was a master of polemic. In his Dahara-vidya-prakasika and his commentary on the Siva-gita, Paramasiva, while paying his homage to Vishnu, vigorously maintains the supremacy of Para-siva, as “the Paramatma seated in the heart”. At the same time, as his special contribution to the literature of Nama-siddhanta, he collected from the Upanishads and other sacred texts, in his Svarupanusandhana which is not yet published, more than a thousand names connoting Brahman, with extensive commentaries thereon. Of this latter work Sadasiva offers a selection in his short poem Atmanusandhana. His heart was drawn to Siva, “yoginam paramam gurum”, even as Appayya’s was; but he remained unshaken in his Advaitic conviction, which is incompatible with the kind of sectarian mentality that depreciates Vishnu at the expense of Siva and vice versa. His poems on Paramesvara in the Navaratnamala, the Svanubhuti-prakasika and the Siva-manasa-puja show the ecstatic devotion. But in these, as in the kirtanas, his mind passes with effortless ease from surrender to the Divine Personality to absorption in the Bliss of Brahman.
About twenty-five of his kirtanas are available; half a dozen of these sing Rama, - “He sports within me in the cave of the heart, with Peace, the daughter of Videha, for his companion”. He devotes an equal number of songs to the Vanamali, Nanda’s darling. And the bliss of the Unconditioned Absolute is celebrated in a dozen songs. It is not possible to explain in words, the charm of songs like “manasasanchara re”, “sarvam brahmamayam”, or “chinta nasti kila”. They rain down a gentle influence on the heart, laying all doubts, lulling the ego and bringing the passionless peace that rejoices the sophisticate and the simple alike.
It is in the Atmavidya-vilasa, which enshrines the quintessential experience of the mukta that Brahmendra’s soul engages in its loftiest flight. There are two versions – one in sixty-two lovely Arya verses, which is far better known and perfect as a pearl; though the other, in forty-six verses, like another poem, the Bodha-arya-prakarana attributed to Brahmendra, is not without flashes of beauty, it is versified philosophy rather than metaphysical poetry.
The Atma-vidya-vilasa is a spiritual autobiography, from which the merely contingent and ephemeral have been excluded. The quest, the practice and the perfection are all recorded, not systematically, but with the higher logic of poetry. It is the canticle of praise by the soul that has found itself, returned to its own home, its long odyssey done – the nightmare travail on the phantom sea of sankalpa and vikalpa. To him who knows their use all things are useful. The world of phenomena, when it ceases to be a snare, is a source of delight; the Self-realized is become as a child again.
He is a rasa-jna, tasting the eternal sweetness of the Chit. Nature –– “red in tooth and claw” for us – ministers to him, the fine river sand a softer bed than eiderdown:
sete kopi yatindrah
He no longer takes; he gives. Bringing us wisdom and joy like some supernal sun and moon, cooling the consuming fire of passion like the breeze of heaven, he realizes for us the transcendent glory that is symbolized by the song of the cuckoo, the dance of the peacock, the serenity of the swan. He knows samadhi with and without object, he has practiced tapas and vairagya; he has borne without resentment the jeers and flouts of the ignorant. But all that is past. He neither praises nor blames neither rejects nor requests. He is always and everywhere at home, nothing is alien to him. He is the king established in his own kingdom, the Peace that passeth understanding; he who, being nothing is everything:
rajati paranapeksho rajakhila-vitaraganam.
It was this purnatva, plenitude of light and bliss that made men say, who had a fleeting vision of that Suka-like spirit:
Sadasiva-brahma-rupam brahmadraksham chirepsitam.
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