Preceptors of Advaita
S. RAJAGOPALA SASTRI
Sri Sankara, the greatest expounder of Advaita Vedanta is reputed to have flourished between 788 and 820 A.D. This date cannot be regarded as finally settled and a large number of Indian scholars bring down his date to the first or second century A.D. or B.C. However, the latter part of the eighth century has been accepted by thinkers as the most probable date. It is not worth-while to enter into a controversy regarding the date of this acharya; for, the absence of relevant inscriptions and historical records permits a pliability in investigation which need not always take us in the right direction. Nor are the teachings of Sri Sankara affected in any way by the absence of certainty regarding his date. He is considered as the incarnation of Lord Siva; and his specific object was to propagate the Vedic and the Upanishadic truths and eradicate the unhealthy trends and practices associated with Hinduism. Before his sixteenth year, he finished his main work of refuting all heretical views and restoring the lustre and purity of the Vedantic systems. But another span of sixteen years was allotted to him by providence to consolidate his work. During the course of his wanderings throughout the length and breadth of India, a large number of disciples came to him for initiation and knowledge, chief among them being Sanandana, who later on become Padmapada, Anandagiri better known as Hastamalaka, and Giri who seems to have also another name, Kalanatha. This Giri was the son of one Visvanatha Adhvari and he later on came to be called Totakacharya. According to tradition, Totakacharya, whose original name was Giri was the amsa of Agni, while Hastamalaka and Padmapada were the incarnations of Vayu and Sri Narayana.
Unfortunately not much is known about the life of these great disciples, except what tradition has cared to preserve. But in the case of Sri Totaka even tradition seems to be silent; for, what we know about this Acharya is very little, though he exemplified in his life the spirit of service and dedication to his Guru, even at the expense of knowledge. In this respect he is on a par with Bharata, the illustrious brother of Sri Ramachandra, and with Hanuman, Sri Rama’s great devotee. The reverence which he had for his Guru, the great Sankaracharya so completely dominated him that Giri had no other interest in his life except to serve the great Master and neglected even his teachings and dis-courses. All that we know about him definitely is that his original name was Giri and from the time that Sri Sankara accepted him as his disciple, he lost himself in the service of his master. The work going by the name of Totakashtaka is attributed to him. It was a spontaneous outpouring of profound gratitude to the Guru whom the disciples held as Isvara himself. It contains only eight verses and invokes in every verse the grace of Sankara. The only other work of his is called Srutisarasamuddharanam in about 179 slokas which contains the quintessence of the Advaita Vedanta. Sri Sankara, after his digvijaya, seems to have made Totaka the head of the Matha which he founded in the Badari Kshetra.
Tradition has it that the devotion of Giri to his Master was very profound; but he did not profit much by the teachings. He seems to have felt that a strong personal devotion to the Guru was of far greater importance than a mere intellectual grasp of the teachings. The latter influenced only the intellect, while the former bound the whole personality to the Guru. He used to absent himself frequently from the classes taught by the Preceptor, preferring to do personal service to the teacher without wasting even that time in mere listening. Sri Sankara who was aware of the depth of his disciple’s affection and reverence towards himself did not mind his absence during the discourses. But the other disciples including Padmapada had a contempt for this ignoramus whose gurubhakti was not apparent to them. One day the class was about to commence and all the other disciples were present. But the Guru did not begin his lessons waiting for someone. He was expecting Giri to come back to the class from the tank where he was washing his Master’s clothes. Getting impatient at this delay, Padmapada suggested to the teacher that since all the students had come, the discourse might start. “Let Giri also come”, were the words of the Master. Padmapada who had a great contempt for the intellectual backwardness of Giri exclaimed rather hastily that there was the wall in the place of Giri. The Master who should have been a bit pained at this discourteous reference to Giri, nevertheless waited for his arrival. With a view to teach the students that a mere intellectual comprehension of the philosophical problems was after all only of secondary importance and that a right attitude and reverence were very necessary in the spiritual sphere, he silently blessed the absent Giri with a complete knowledge of the Vedantic truth. Giri who was still engaged in washing his Master’s clothes, suddenly felt an upsurge of his intellect and a divine flash of illumination. This made him experience and realise the spiritual uplift instantly. While others took years and perhaps several births to realise this truth, Giri was able to perfect this state of realisation almost in an instant. Gratitude to the Guru who in his extraordinary compassion had inspired him with divine knowledge and bliss made Giri spontaneously praise Sri Sankara in eight verses (Totkashtaka) in Totaka metre each verse ending with the refrain, “bhava sankara desika me saranam.” It is clear that the composition of this work in Totaka metre earned for him the name of Totakacharya. Repeating these verses he approached his Guru and his holy presence, and in the midst of all his disciples he composed the work by name – Srutisarasamuddharanam. It is also known by another name Vedantavedyaparatattvanivedanam. These slokas have an even flow and rhythm and an easy diction, but manifest an unrivalled depth of thought. With this single work, the fame of Totakacharya was made and he has now an abiding place in the galaxy of Advaita Acharyas.
The Srutisarasamuddharanam, according to tradition, is a spontaneous flow of a well-sustained discourse on Advaita Vedanta dealing with the most crucial and important topic of the identity of Jiva and Brahman. It seems to have been spontaneously composed and recited in the presence of Sri Sankara and the other disciples when Giri was under the silent inspiration of the teacher. However it may be, we have in this work a careful and authoritative exposition of the subject and Totakacharya being the direct disciple of Sri Sankara has lent to this work a peculiar significance. It is not necessary to give an elaborate account of the philosophy underlying the work; but even a cursory summary will reveal the masterly touch of one who had realised the Absolute, or who had become a mukta.
This small work in one hundred and seventy-nine slokas has been published by the Sri Vani Vilas Press, Srirangam, with the commentary of Sri Sacchidananda Yogi, together with a foreword in English by R. Krishnaswamy Iyer. The Acharya insists that before one begins the Vedanta vichara, one should be disciplined and be pure in mind. The four Sadhanas are very necessary and the novice should have disciplined himself thoroughly. He should have the firm belief that the Atman alone is eternal and consequently worthy of cultivation and that all the other things are worthless. A stern negative attitude to all types of sense enjoyments, either in this world or in heaven should be cultivated. At the same time, the senses should be restrained from going outward, the mind must be content, and more than all, the aspirant should have an ardent desire to attain mukti. Without this moral discipline Vedantic study is entirely useless.
Though the central theme of the work is the exposition of the identity between the Self and Brahman, the Acharya leads up to this topic by discussing some allied questions at the outset. The seeker should completely renounce his attachment to the five sheaths or kosas, annamaya (food), pranamaya (vital airs), manomaya (intellect), vijnanamaya (buddhi) and Anandamaya (bliss). In other words, the aspirant should not identify himself with any of these sheaths. These are merely the outer coverings as it were of the true Self. Brahman is unlimited though immanent in every one. Brahman does not change, though associated with the changing and modifying upadhis like mind and intellect. Most of all, one should never identify oneself with ahamkara (ego) because it is after all an adventitious factor and is not the real self. Brahman is absolutely unrelated to ahamkara, and Totakacharya affirms that Atman should not be equated with the individual self. Brahman is without any attributes or personality, and is eternal and self-luminous. All the Mahavakyas in the Upanishads assert that the Self is Brahman. This is the central theme of this work. The identity between the Self and Brahman is one of essential identity and the similarity should not be carried on the non-essential and trivial things. As the english Introduction points out, all unnecessary and irrelevant factors in each of the two equating terms should be eliminated. The Mahavakya Tattvamasi contains three words, viz., tat, tvam and asi (That, thou, and art). Of these “thou” stands for the Jiva which when divested of the adventitious conditions, is really the Pure Consciousness. This Pure Consciousness is delimited by individuality, when it comes to believe that it is a particular being. It then acquires ahanta (“I-ness”) Again the Jiva (as we should now call the particularised and delimited self) is limited by its experiences. There is also a third limitation when the Jiva qualified by experiences begins to perceive empirical and personal states. When one says, “I see this”, it is an indication that one is bound by a particular experience or perception. The state of “I see”, is devoid of this particularity of perception but nevertheless is a limitation of the self in the direction of experience or perception. The statement implies a possibility of generalised experience. The most underlying delimitation lies in reducing the pure self to the status of an individual. We see here that the self is only limited to an individual subject and nothing more. The Acharya points out that the state, namely, the one in which the direct apprehension of the various objects is simultaneous with the functioning of the sense organs is called the waking state. The second one is the dream state in which the knowledge of things is acquired without the functioning of the sense-organs and is due to the latent impressions present in the mind. And, the third one is the deep sleep state when the intellect together with its latent impressions merge in avidya. The real self is the eternal Witness (sakshi) of these three states. It subsists in these three states but at the same time is beyond them. This is described as the Turiya (the fourth). Totakacharya points out that the individuated ‘I’ though regarded by some as the real self is not so and that it is only the upadhi of the buddhi.
Regarding the term “That” (tat), it is pointed out that it is real, eternal, impartite and infinite. It is also satyam (truth) at all the three times. There was no time at which Brahman did not exist and in the same way there will be no time at which Brahman will cease to exist. The universe has no substantiality or reality apart from Brahman. It is created, sustained and destroyed, and hence it is not eternal and not true. But at the same time it is not an absolute nothing because it exists. It cannot be both true and untrue for this is a logical impossibility. It is clear that Sri Totaka is making a reference to Maya while speaking about the prapancha in this way. We thus see that the true meaning of the Mahavakya is that the individual Jiva is not different from the Paramatman (Brahman). The former is neither a part nor a modification of Brahman. The embodied self, when the embodiment is removed, is the same disembodied, eternal, impartite Self.
Totakacharya drives home this conclusion by removing certain possible misconceptions which may arise in the equation process. But these are too detailed for our purpose. By the process of negation (apavada) we prove that the self is not the “I” nor the buddhi nor the manas nor the senses nor the prana. References are made to other systems and their views are criticized. Direct references are made to the Vaiseshika philosophy and its statements are regarded as mistaken. Apart from the intellectual superiority of these teachings, one should admire the utter self-lessness and spirit of devotion characteristic of Sri Totakacharya; and if the Acharya is today regarded as a resplendent luminary in the galaxy of Advaita teacher, one may be excused if appreciation is more for the high moral and spiritual character of the teacher than even for his teachings.
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