Preceptors of Advaita
Unlike Suresvara and Padmapada who have left an indelible mark on the history of Advaitic thought, Hastamalaka and Totaka, two other direct disciples of Sri Sankara, have been revered more for what they were than for any works they have bequeathed to posterity. Nevertheless, if tradition may be trusted, a small treatise, Hastamalaka-stotra by name, consisting of twelve verses, may be ascribed to Hastamalaka, the marvelous boy disciple of the great Master. Its distinction is that it is accompanied by a commentary whose author, according to the traditionalists, is none other than Sri Sankara himself1. The views set forth in the Stotra constitute orthodox Advaita, of course, and they may properly be taken to represent the quintessence of Hastamalaka’s spiritual experience. Before analysing these verses let us reproduce the few events in Hastamalaka’s life, incidentally incorporated in the Sri Sankaradigvijaya of Madhavacharya and the Sankaravijaya of Vyasachala2. The fact that the accounts given in these works discover a striking measure of agreement proves, not their authenticity so much as the dependence of the one on the other.
In the course of his triumphal tour of India as the authentic exponent of Advaita philosophy, Sankara, accompanied by a large group of disciples and admirers, reached Sri Bali a brahmana village near Gokarna. An affluent villager, Prabhakara by name, together with a sick son, thirteen years old, approached Sankara hoping to get his son healed3. According to etiquette the father bowed low before the sage and caused his son to do likewise. The latter, “a live coal hidden in ashes” would not get up, but remained prostrate demonstrating, as it were, his grievous malady. When, however, the compassionate sage lifted up the boy, his anxious father respectfully enquired what the matter could be with his son who behaved so strangely. Thirteen years had gone by and so far he had shown no sign of sensibility. Of course, he could not learn the Vedas so far, though the formal ceremony of initiation had been performed. In the midst of his playmates, the boy would remain listless; even physical harm inflicted on him failed to evoke angry reactions of any kind. In the matter of diet, too, he was indifferent. It was, thus, by the force of sheer karma that he was growing up4.
In answer, ‘the great soul’, inhabiting the body of the boy uttered the twelve verses of the Hastamalaka-stotra. They set forth, in the main, the nature of the Self or the Atman. The refrain of all of them is: I, the Self, am eternal Awareness, nityopalabdhisvarupo’ ham atma. The author of these verses seeks to translate into intelligible language the content of his integral experience, which, being sui generis, does not lend itself to such translation.
Hence the profuse use of symbols and metaphors strewn in these verses. The initial step in the process of the translation has been to relate, unavoidably, the unrelated Absolute, the contentless awareness, to the activities of mind and sense-organs. The real inspirer of all activities, subjective and objective, is the Atman5. The sun energizing the world of objects into their varied activities is a fit analogue of the Atman. The author is very well conscious of the intrinsically indefensible nature of his initial step. The Absolute is, strictly, the relationless, the unconditioned. Hence, his characterization of it as nirastakhilopadhi. Its appropriate analogue may be sought for in the boundless space6. (V-1).
This very Atman abides in the living body as the Jiva, exactly as the face, in the guise of the reflection, is present in the mirror8. In other words, the plurality of Jivas is only an appearance whose timeless truth is the non-duality of the Atman. What differs from individual to individual is not the foundational principle of awareness9, the real content of ‘I’; the forms or modes of the antahkarana, embodying it from moment to moment, alone, differ (V-3). Transcend these momentary fluctuations, and, at once, the indivisible wholeness of the Atman is restored, just as once the mirror is removed, the reflection vanishes leaving the wholeness of the face, intact10. The empiric plurality of the Jivas is due to the superimposition, on the non-dual Atman, of the manifoldness of the modes, in which this Atman is reflected (V-4).
Despite the eternal transcendence of the self-luminous Atman, the Self of the Jiva, the empirically experienced finitude and fragmentariness of the cognitions of the latter may not be gain-said. Bondage of the Jiva is an incredible fact. It consists in the appearance, to the ignorant Jiva, of the Atman as bound, baddhavatbhati mudhadrshteh. A parallel phenomenon may be cited by way of illustration. An observer whose eye-sight is obstructed by clouds is apt to imagine that the sun is engulfed by them. As the sun, in fact, so the Atman, in truth, does not suffer the slightest diminution in its natural effulgence. Notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, the Atman is eternally pure, awake, and free, nityasuddhabuddhamuktasvabhavah (V-10). The transcendence of the Atman must be understood together with the complementary truth of its immanence in all phenomena. On it, but without, in the least, affecting its wholeness and purity, are strung the phenomena constituting the cosmos14. It is their abiding ground
and in this respect its analogue is space accommodating the objective manifold (V-11). The concluding verse reaffirms the nondual status of the Atman while it traces all plurality to the limiting adjuncts and media of reflection. The psycho-physical organisms are multiple and the Atman, in empiric association with them, consequently, appears to be many. The phenomenal plurality of the Jivas in no way affects the transcendental non-duality of the Atman.
1 Cf. pp. 163 ff, Vol. XVI of The works of Sri Sankaracharya, Sri Vani Vilas Edition. It is only fair to point out that the traditional view has been disputed by scholars like Belvalkar. Cf. Mallik Lectures on Vedanta Philosophy, Part I (first edition), p.218.
3 Sankaradigvijaya of Madhavacharya, 12, 47.
4 Ibid., 12, 50–53.
5 Cf. Kenopanishad, I, 1 and 2.
6 Cf. niramsatvat vibhutvacca tathanasvarabhavatah,
8 cf. abhasa eva ca; Brahma-Sutra, 2. 3. 50.
9 cf. What is life? Pp. 89,90. E. Schrodinger, Cambridge, 1944.
10 Cf. Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, I. 3. tadadrashtusvarupe’ vasthanam.
11 Kenopanishad, 1.2.
12 Cf. Yato vaconivarttante’ prapya manasasaha Taittiriyo’panishad, 2.4.
13 Cf. Kathopanishad, 5.15.
14 Cf. Bhagavad-Gita 7.7.
15 jagatprakasa itibrumah – Hastamalaka-stotra-bhashya, p. 160.
16 vijnataram are kena vijaniyat–Brihadaranyako’panishad, 2.4.14.
17 Hastamalaka–stotrabhashya, p. 166.
18 tadetadasariratvam mokshakhyam Sankara’s Bhashya on the Brahma-Sutra, 1.1.4.
19 Chandogyo’panishad, 8.12.1.
20 sayo havai tatparamam brahma veda brahmaiva bhavati, Mundako’panishad, 3.2.9.
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