Adi Shankara's Satashloki
By Shri. P.R. Kannan, Mumbai
Adi Sankaracharya, an incarnation of Lord Siva, fought many faiths not founded in the right intent of Vedas and reestablished Advaita Vedanta on a reasoned, firm footing. To this end, he wrote many books, which are generally divided into three categories: Bhashya granthas, or commentaries for the Uttama Adhikari, the learned scholar; Prakarana granthas, or explanatory texts for the Madhyama Adhikari, the middle level aspirant; Stotras, or devotional hymns in praise of Gods for the Samanya Adhikari, the common man. There are many Prakarana granthas like Viveka Chudamani, Atma bodha, Tatva bodha etc. authored by the compassionate Sankaracharya. Satasloki, a book of hundred verses, is a work of this category, which explains all aspects of Advaita Vedanta in a lucid manner. There are two unique and striking features of this book. One is that there are frequent direct references to or quotations from Vedas (Karma Kanda), Upanishads etc. and the other is the large number of similes and illustrative examples.
Advaita Vedanta has been succinctly put forth by Adi Sankara in a single verse elsewhere:
श्लोकार्धेन प्रवक्ष्यामि किमर्थं ग्रन्थकोटिभिः ।
ब्रह्मसत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः ॥
‘Let me bring out the truth in half a verse; where is the need for crores of books?
Brahman is Reality; Jagat is false (appearing as real); Jiva is none other than Brahman - not different.’ Satasloki explains this fundamental truth in regard to Brahman, Jagat and Jiva.
At the outset Sankara pays a glowing tribute to Guru; a tribute unmatched in beauty and import.
दृष्टान्तो नैव दृष्टस्-त्रिभुवनजठरे सद्गुरोर्-ज्ञानदातुः
स्पर्शश्चेत्-तत्र कल्प्यस्स नयति यदहो स्वर्णतां-अश्मसारम् ।
न स्पर्शत्वं तथापि श्रितचरणयुगे सद्गुरुः स्वीयशिष्ये
स्वीयंसाम्यं विधत्ते भवति निरुपमस्-तेन वाऽलौकिकोऽपि ॥ (१)
‘There is no comparison in all the three worlds with the Sadguru who imparts Atmagnana. We may compare him with the Philosopher’s stone, which turns iron into gold by contact. But that comparison does not hold good because Sadguru turns his disciple, who has taken refuge at his feet, into his equal (unlike the Philosopher’s stone, which does not turn iron into another Philosopher’s stone). Hence Sadguru is not only unparalleled, but also out of this world. (meaning he is none other than God)’ (1). Sadguru nurtures the Guru Parampara, chain of Gurus by ensuring that his disciple is equal to him in all respects.
Brahman is beyond the ken of human thought. That is why it is described often as ‘Neti-Neti’- ‘Not this- Not this’. The closest affirmation is that Brahman is Sat, Chit and Ananda. Brahman is that Sat, Reality, which transcends time and space; it remains absolutely unchanged in all the three periods of time and unbounded by constraints of space. Brahman is infinite in space and in time. Before the creation of the universe Brahman alone existed. At the beginning of creation Brahman manifested as Hiranyagarbha, which contained all subtle bodies and then as Virat, which had all the gross bodies. Hiranyagarbha and Virat appear on Brahman because of beginningless Avidya. Since Brahman pervades all the subtle and gross bodies, it follows that it is not limited by any objects, subtle or gross. Water manifests as foam; foam is nothing but water. Water is not limited by foam. Brahman is thus free from all the three limitations, viz. of space, time and objects.
Brahman is that Chit, Consciousness, which is all-pervasive. As consciousness functions through our eyes, the eyes are able to see Sun, Moon and other luminaries; not by the light of Sun or Moon. Sun and other objects themselves shine because of that Consciousness. Brahman alone is self-effulgent and omniscient. (Refer to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7.9).
Brahman is that Ananda, Bliss undiluted, a minuscule fraction of which is experienced by Jivas. Let us consider the happiness of a king, endowed with all accomplishments and prosperity, as one unit. The happiness of Pitrus is a hundred times the king’s. Thus the happiness gets multiplied a hundred times successively for Gandharvas, Devas who have attained Devahood by religious merit, Devas by birth, Prajapati and Hiranyagarbha. Even the last mentioned happiness of Hiranyagarbha is infinitesimally small in relation to the infinite Bliss of Brahman. (Refer to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.32 and 33). Lalita Sahasranamam also conveys the same idea: ‘स्वात्मानन्द-लवीभूत-ब्रह्माद्यानन्द-संततिः’ -
‘The happiness of Brahma and others in succession is a small fraction of Sri Lalita Devi’s’.
Jagat and Jiva
Before creation, i.e. during Pralaya, the jagat (universe) was covered in Maya, the inseparable power of Brahman. At the commencement of creation after Pralaya, Brahman, prompted by Maya, appears as Hiranyagarbha or Creator. This Hiranyagarbha is in essence not different from Brahman. The same Brahman becomes all the jivas by association with all the minds, which are all modifications of Maya. Maya then appears in the form of this jagat of innumerable names and forms, in conformity with past karmas of jivas. Maya has two powers, the veiling power (Avarana Sakti) and the projecting power (Vikshepa Sakti). Maya veils Brahman and projects the universe. A rope appears as a snake in twilight. A sea-shell appears as a piece of silver from a distance. Desert appears like water from a distance in hot summer. So also, the universe appears as a false superimposition on Brahman. Brahman reflected in pure (Satvic) Maya is Isvara. Jiva is Brahman reflected in Avidya, impure Maya, which has Rajoguna and Tamoguna. Isvara and jiva both dwell in Maya like two birds on a tree. The jiva experiences external objects through sense organs and feels happiness or misery, like the bird which eats sweet and bitter fruits on the tree. Isvara does not eat any fruit and is not affected by happiness or misery. Here Sankara’s reference is to Mundakopanishad, III.i.1.
Though everyone knows about the uniform existence of space (Mahakasa) everywhere, man wrongly thinks that the space inside the pot (Ghatakasa) comes into existence only when the pot is made, that the space inside is destroyed when the pot is destroyed, that when the pot is moved from one place to another, the space inside also moves along with it and that space takes the shape and size of the pot. Similarly though the Atma exists always and is all-pervasive, people wrongly think that it comes into existence when the universe comes into existence, that it ceases to exist when the universe is dissolved, and so on.
Jiva is essentially of the nature of Brahman, viz. sentiency, consciousness and bliss. Jivatma appears to be enveloped by the body, mind and sense organs; it is what makes them function. It is not in reality tainted by their characteristics. The qualities of the insentient body like youth, old age etc. are wrongly attributed to the Jiva because of ignorance of its real nature as Brahman. The nature of the reflection of Brahman, i.e. the nature of a particular jiva, depends on the nature of his mind, just as the reflection of a face in a mirror varies according as the mirror is convex or concave, clean or dirty, fixed or moving. Just as the face itself is not affected by the nature of the mirror, Brahman is not at all affected by the nature of the reflecting medium, the mind, and ever remains the same and immutable.
Atma is the Prana (vital air) of Prana in the body, in the sense that it is what enables the Prana to perform its activities. Similarly it is the eye of the eye, ear of the ear and so on. At the same time Atma is a mere witness of the activities of all the organs. It does not itself either act or make the organs act, because it is actionless.
In the waking state the Jivatma keeps reacting with the mind to all the experiences gathered through the sense organs and undergoing happiness and misery constantly. In the dream state the Jiva withdraws all the sense organs into himself and remains as self-effulgent. The Jivatma, the witness of all that is experienced in dream, illumines by its own light, all objects seen in the dream, which are all created by past impressions. In the dream the person undergoes pleasant and terrifying experiences, while the physical body lies motionless on the bed. In deep sleep, he experiences the bliss of complete union with Atma. Hence Atma is the only common sentient entity in all the three states - waking, dream and deep sleep.
A silkworm, thinking itself to be very wise, builds a web around itself for protection, with the thread that comes out of its mouth and remains active in it throughout its life. Ultimately the web along with the worm is taken away by someone, who makes silk out of it and destroys the worm. In the same way man, having acquired a gross physical body as a result of past accumulated karmas, remains attached to that body and engages in further actions which result in perpetuating his bondage. Man looks upon his own body as well as that of others, which is composed externally of bones, muscles, bone marrow, flesh, blood, membrane, skin and lymph and filled inside with excreta, urine and phlegm as the Atma and identifies his perishable body with himself. Sankara laments that owing to Avidya, men never think of Atma, the immortal Lord of all life, because of whom they are alive and to whom they owe all their happiness.
The indwelling Atma is infinite and all-pervading. When a child is conceived, the subtle body, constituted of mind and sense organs, enters the physical body. It is not as if Atma enters the body. On death the subtle body goes to higher or lower worlds according to the person’s karma. After enjoying fruits of karma for a certain amount of time it comes back to this world to take on another gross body. Sankara cites a story from Rigveda (8.1.20 and 8.1.21) in support of this theory. The brother of a brahmana named Subandhu, who died as a result of Aabhichara Prayoga by some persons, brought his subtle body back to earth by chanting Vedic mantras.
Consider the cloud, which appears to conceal the Sun, though the Sun is much bigger than itself. The cloud did not exist before the rainy season and is not there at the end of that season. It cannot really conceal the Sun; it only obstructs the sight of the person who tries to see the Sun. It is in fact visible only because of Sun’s light. In the same way, the universe, which is illumined and enabled to function only because of Brahman, conceals the Atma from the intellect of men.
Man is attached to his own body, wife, son, possessions and the like. They are dear to him only because of love of one’s own Atma. On deeper thought it becomes clear that attachment to anything other than Atma, such as wife, son and others, is indeed the cause of sorrow. (Reference is to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5). A seeker of Liberation should therefore give up first attachment to the external objects including wife, son and the like, and ultimately attachment to his own body. Sankara cites Kathopanishad, which explains this in six sections (I.ii.2). There are two paths open to man in this world – the path leading to fulfilment of worldly desires and the path to Liberation. Only those lacking in discrimination would take to the first path, which is the sole source of all sorrow and becomes insipid in no time. Wise men of discrimination resort to the second path, leading to attainment of Brahman, the imperishable source of infinite bliss.
Jiva- Brahma- Aikyam (Unity of Jiva and Brahman)
The presence of ghee in milk is known by the sweetness of milk. Though ghee is in the milk, it is different from it. Similarly the presence of Brahman in all creatures is known by the fact that the creatures are able to perform activities. (Refer to Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.1 and 6.8.2). That Brahman, who is different from the creatures (body etc.), is also the place of rest during Pralaya, of all creatures, who are fatigued with repeated cycle of births and deaths.
मत्वा स्त्रीवेषधारी स्त्र्यहमिति कुरुते किन्नटो भर्तुरिच्छां
तद्वच्छारीर आत्मा पृथग्-अनुभवतो देहतो यः स साक्षी ॥ (७)
‘Does a man, who plays the role of a woman in a drama, think of himself as a woman and desire a husband? Similarly the Atma, who is in a body, is experienced as distinct from the body; Atma is only a witness.’
An aspirant should perform all duties as laid down in Vedas and Dharma Sastras as applicable to his varna, asrama etc. and offer all such karmas to Brahman without any desire for fruit. In order to comfort her child, who has been crying due to some illness, the mother puts into its mouth a raisin, a date, mango or banana. The idea is to comfort the child temporarily so that it may willingly take the medicine for curing him of the illness. The intention of the mother is not to feed the chid with raisin, date etc., which will not cure the child, but may only aggravate its illness. In the same way, the Upanishads adopt various means to impart Atmagnana to the ignorant man, whose mind is full of vasanas left by actions performed in innumerable past lives under wrong identification with the body-mind complex. – ‘बोधोपायैर्-अनेकैर्-अवशं-उपनिषद्-बोधयामास सम्यक्’ (8). The Upanishads induce man to perform actions, meditation etc. initially with desire for fruits and ultimately without desire. The same idea is conveyed forcefully in Srimad Bhagavatham:
वेदोक्तमेव कुर्वाणो निःसङ्गोऽर्पितमीश्वरे ।
नैष्कर्म्यां लभते सिद्धिं रोचनार्था फलश्रुतिः ॥ (११.३.४६)
“One, who performs actions stipulated in Vedas without attachment to results thereof and in an attitude of dedication to the Lord, attains the ultimate actionless state (of Liberation). The enumeration of fruits of acts in Vedas is only to attract people to engage in those acts.” (11.3.46)
Such performance of acts will result in purity of mind and devotion to the Lord. The aspirant should then concentrate on acquisition of intellectual knowledge by sravana or hearing the scriptures from the Guru. He should then do manana or deep reflection and clear all doubts. Finally by nididhyasana or one-pointed contemplation he realises in his own experience that he is not the body-mind complex, but the indwelling Atma. He realises that it is his own Atma that dwells in all living beings and that the entire creation is superimposed on his own Atma. There is no real existence other than Brahman. In deep sleep all living beings merge in Brahman and enjoy bliss. That same supreme bliss can be enjoyed always including waking state if a person realises his identity with Brahman. A person, who has come as a guest to another house and who intends to return to his own house soon, is not unduly affected by the happenings in the house which he is visiting. So also, a person who, though living in his own house is free from all attachment, realises that everything in this world is transient and subject to perpetual change, like the clouds and that what is destined to happen will happen. Just as a traveller resorts to the shade of the trees on his way for a short rest, the aspirant remains in the body without attachment to it. While moving about in performance of worldly activities, he looks upon himself as a wave in the ocean that is Brahman. While sitting he thinks of himself as a gem strung in the thread of Pure Consciousness. While experiencing sense objects through the sense organs he sees all objects as Brahman alone. While sleeping he feels immersed in the ocean of bliss of Brahman. He spends his time, established in the indwelling Atma.
He remains satisfied with whatever he gets as Prasada of Bhagavan. He realises that one who eats food without offering to Gods and guests becomes the very embodiment of sin. (Refer to Bhagavad Gita 3.13). At first desire for sense objects arises in the mind of human beings. Anger arises, when the desired object is not attained. If the object is attained, intense desire to protect it and gain more of it develops. This is greed. Desire, anger and greed are the cause of man’s spiritual downfall. A wise man should therefore get rid of these three and concentrate his mind on Atma. (Refer to Bhagavad Gita 16.21). Just as fire does not burn wet firewood, the fire of Self-knowledge cannot enter the mind of a person who is attached to family, wealth etc., though he might have considerable religious merit. Sankara states his concept of training the mind, citing a well-known mantra in Sama Veda known as Setu Sama. (Setu here means obstacle). A seeker should practise giving of gifts, danam and overcome the obstacle of greed; practise forbearance and overcome anger; practise faith in scriptures and in Guru’s teachings and overcome fickleness of mind; practise looking upon Brahman alone as real and overcome feeling of reality in the world.
आदौ मध्ये तथान्ते जनि-मृति-फलदं कर्ममूलं विशालं
ज्ञात्वा संसारवृक्षं भ्रम-मद-मुदिता-शोकतानेकपत्रम् ।
छित्वाऽसङ्गासिनैनं पटुमतिर्-अभितश्-चिन्तयेद्-वासुदेवम् ॥ (१००)
‘The wise man should understand that the tree of transmigration has his past karma as the root; desire, anger etc. as the branches; delusion, pride, joy, grief etc. as its many leaves; gives only repeated births and deaths as fruits; has sons, animals, wife, daughters etc. as the birds living in it; and is very vast in size. Knowing the real nature of this tree at its beginning, middle and end, viz. it is perishable, he should cut it down with the sword of detachment. He should always meditate on Vasudeva, the indweller of all beings.’ (100)
A person, who has acquired discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral, total detachment, and control of the mind, senses etc. and who yearns for Liberation, becomes a Jivanmukta, one who is liberated even while in this body. He has attained Brahman, has given up identification with the body-mind complex, is free from all thought of external objects and is beyond Punya and Papa (religious merit and sin). His mind is free from all doubts and delusion. He has attained the Turiya (fourth) state beyond waking, dream and deep sleep. The dissolution of all objects, subtle and gross, dormancy of all the organs and the mind, experience of happiness – these three are common to the states of Jivanmukti and deep sleep (sushupti). But there is a major difference between these two states. One who is asleep comes back to the waking state and undergoes joy and suffering because of effects of his past karma. A Jivanmukta does not go back to the state of bondage because all his past karmas and their effects (other than Prarabdha karma) have been destroyed in the fire of Atmagnana. He is in a permanent state of happiness and his mind is always calm.
क्षीयन्ते चास्य कर्माण्यपि खलु हृदय-ग्रन्थिर्-उद्भिद्यते वै
छिद्यन्ते संशया ये जनि-मृति-फलदा दृष्टमात्रे परेशे ।
तस्मिन्श्-चिन्मात्ररूपे गुणमल-रहिते तत्वमस्यादि-लक्ष्ये
कूटस्थे प्रत्यगात्मन्य्-अखिल-विधि-मनोऽगोचरे ब्रह्मणीशे ॥ (९९)
‘When that Brahman, which is pure consciousness, untainted by the three gunas, Satva, Rajas and Tamas, which is indicated by Mahavakyas like ‘You are That’, which is immutable, which cannot be reached by Vedas and the mind, which is the indwelling Atma of all, the Supreme ruler is realised by a person as his own Atma, then, immediately all his accumulated karmas are destroyed. The knot of the heart, by which the Atma and the body-mind complex are bound together, is cut asunder. All his doubts, which are the cause of his repeated births and deaths, are resolved.’ (99). (Refer to Mundakopanishad 2.2.8).
He continues in this body till the Prarabdha karma, which gave rise to the present body, is exhausted. When his body falls, he becomes a Videhamukta. He remains merged in the infinite Brahman, just as salt dissolved in water becomes one with water. Sankara thunders about his grand universal vision:
नो देहो नेन्द्रियाणि क्षरं-अतिचपलं नो मनो नैव बुद्धिः
प्राणो नैवाहं-अस्मीत्य्-अखिल-जडं-इदं वस्तुजातं कथं स्याम् ।
नाहङ्कारो न दारा-गृह-सुत-सुजन-क्षेत्र-वित्तादि दूरं
साक्षी चित्-प्रत्यगात्मा निखिल-जगद्-अधिष्ठान-भूतःशिवोऽहम् ॥ (९२)
‘I am not the body, nor the organs of sense and action, nor the extremely fickle, perishable mind, nor even the intellect, nor the vital force; how can I be this mass of absolutely inert objects? I am not the ego; I am far from identifying myself with wife, house, son, relations, field, wealth etc. I am the mere uninvolved witness of all these, the pure consciousness, the innermost Atma, which is the substratum of the entire universe and is most auspicious (free from all contact with effects of Maya). (92)
जातं मय्येव सर्वं पुनरपि मयि तत्संस्थितं चैव विश्वं
सर्वं मय्येव याति प्रविलयमिति तद्ब्रह्म चैवाहं-अस्मि ।
यस्य स्मृत्या च यज्ञाद्य्-अखिल-शुभविधौ सुप्रयातीह कार्यं
न्यूनं संपूर्णतांवै तमहं-अतिमुदैवाच्युतं सन्नतोऽस्मि ॥ (१०१)
‘This entire universe was born from me, it is sustained by me and it finally merges in me. I am that Brahman, by the mere remembrance of whom all auspicious acts such as yagnas, even when deficiently performed, attain perfection and yield the desired results. I most happily prostrate before that changeless supreme Lord.’ (Refer to Kaivalyopanishad 19).
ॐ तत् सत्
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