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Re: Advaita and caste - (was Re: The Theism of the Upanishads)

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Vidyasankar Sundaresan (vidya@cco.caltech.edu) wrote:

: At the risk of restarting a closed discussion, I am posting this article.  
: It was ready at least two weeks ago, but posting got delayed due to a  
: variety of reasons.  

I hope you don't mind me butting in here. :-)

: I -  Sankara emerges as a philosopher beyond such sectarian 
:      considerations, both in his writings and the traditional  
:      accounts of his life. 
: Mani - This is true to an extent, although his preference for Brahmins and
:        Brahminism (once again, leaving the spurious Manisa-pancakam aside)
:        can be viewed as rigid sectarianism (and is perhaps far worse).

First of all, let me vent a pet peeve of mine.  The word is BRAHMANA NOT 
BRAHMIN!  Just because some stupid Englishman had a speech impediment a 
couple of centuries ago, it doesn't mean we have to repeat his mistake 
does it?  O.K., Now that I've got that out of my system let's continue,

: With all due courtesy, Mani, we were discussing sectarianism, not  
: casteism. They are two completely orthogonal issues. Pretty nice, to jump  
: on to the casteism bandwagon!

: Anyway, this is a serious charge, more so for us today. Therefore it  
: merits detailed rebuttal. First let us look at what "Brahminism" is,  
: before one examines Sankara's alleged preference for Brahmins. 

: Brahminism, like the term Hinduism, means different things to different  
: people. The word Brahmin itself however is more easily grasped.  
: Essentially the definition is circular - one who is born a Brahmin is a  
: Brahmin. A sociologist today would probably look at the various Sankara  
: mathas, the Dvaita mathas at Udipi and other places, and the Srivaishnava  
: mathas in addition to famous temples like Kashi, Madurai and Tirupati, to  
: gather data on "Brahminism".  

: This kind of "Brahminism" is today's fact - a fact that came into being  
: recently.

Recently?  How do you reach this conclusion? The religion practised today 
is the same as that prescribed by Shruti and Smrti.

: To talk of Sankara's preference or otherwise for Brahmins, one  
: must ask a few important questions first. What was "Brahminism" in  
: Sankara's time itself? And what are Sankara's own words regarding this? 

: Before Sankara's time, (7th cent. A. D.), Buddhism was widely prevalent  
: among the scholarly community.

This is conjecture based on the fact that many more Buddhist books 
survive from that period.  It is by no means an established fact.

: About 50 years or so before Sankara,  
: Kumarila Bhatta, Prabhakara and Mandana Misra had firmly established the  
: pUrva mImAmSA as the major philosophy of Brahminism. By pUrva mImAmSA is  
: meant the philosophy that holds that the karmakAnDa of the Vedas is  
: supreme, and that all the Vedas are mainly with a view to provide  
: injunctions to man. Under this thought, the injunction is to perform Vedic  
: karmas, ranging from the simple nityakarmAs to the elaborate nimitta and  
: kAmya karmAs like putrakameshti or aSwamedha. Essentially this translates  
: as ritualism - the ritualism is for its own sake. The pUrva mImAmSA went  
: so far as to say that one need not worry about the existence or otherwise  
: of  Vedic gods; mere performance of Vedic rituals would yield moksha, the  
: fourth purushArtha.  

: A little thought will indicate that performance of such sacrificial  
: rituals requires wealth, social status as a learned Brahmin or a powerful  
: Kshatriya king, and other such requisites.

True for the Srauta karmas.  But the Grhya karmas are also undeniably 
Vaidik and considerably less complicated.  The great Mimamsakas only 
described Srauta karmas because they are the archetypes of all yagnas and 
almost anything said about them can be applied mutatis mutandis to the 
grhya karmas.  The later Mimamsakas also employed their tecniques in the 
analysis of the Smritis and rites described therein.

: Social status as a learned Brahmin is required because otherwise people
: would not attend the sacrifice and the sacrifice would not yield its
: expected fruit.

Huh??  I see no evidence of this in any shastra.  The efficacy of the 
karma depends on the technical proficiency of the priests.  The number of 
people attending has nothing to do with it.

: Such was  
: the orthodox Brahminism of the 7th century, and it worked perfectly well  
: for some time.

The Puranas and Itihasas were already in existence at this time and they 
are also products of "orthodox Brahminism."

: Kings were able to assert their royal authority and collect  
: much needed revenue through this device, smart Brahmins were able to amass  
: wealth and influence affairs of state, while at the same time aserting  
: that their moksha is assured.

Baseless speculation again.

: What about the general populace, mostly  
: vaiSyas and more importantly the poor SUdras?

Vaishyas are (or were) dwija and entitled to perform Vaidik karmas.  In 
fact there is a yagna called Vaishyastoma which can only be performed by 
them.  Sudras also play a supporting role in some yagnas including the 

: The answer of this orthodox  
: Brahminism was that the vaiSyA gained liberation through their king's  
: performance of the major rituals and as for the SUdra, he had no other go  
: but to gain rebirth in a higher caste in order to achieve liberation. Let  
: us see what Sankara himself has to say about this. 

The shastras are quite clear that the Puranas are the road to moksha for 
those who are not authorized or incapable of performing Vaidik karmas.

: I shall not quote the mAnIshA panchakam here, which Mani has already  
: dismissed as spurious. I shall return to it later though. Let us quote  
: only from the BrahmasUtra bhAshya and the bhAshya on the BrihadAraNyaka  
: upanishad. 

: Sankara's first answer to the orthodox Brahmin of his day is that all his  
: ritualism will get him nowhere but to endless rebirth. Performance of  
: ritual is based on the very acceptance of the duality that needs to be  
: annihilated. Nothing really good can be gained out of it. 

A lot of good can be gained from it.  Nothing permanant can be gained 
from it.

: Also, performance of ritual required money.

Again let me point out, Shrauta ritual requires money.  Grhya ritual does 
not.  I am fully capable of performing all vidhis required by Shruti and 
Smrti right here in New Jersey.  (The only reason I don't is I'm not 

: The Br. Ar. upanishad tells us  
: "amrtatvasya nASAsti vittena" - wealth is not going to secure liberation.  
: Now, it is obvious that mere possession of wealth was not going to  
: liberate. Sankara's argument is this - because the upanishad has nothing  
: to gain by stating the obvious, what it means by wealth is really the  
: performance of rituals for which the amassed wealth is used - this is what  
: the upanishad really wants to convey.  


: Assuredly, this was not music to  
: the ears of the orthodox Brahmin of his day. Acquisition of wealth is  
: always pleasant to any man. Performance of rituals justified this in the  
: minds of the Brahmin. To be told that this is of no use for liberation  
: must have definitely rankled the wealthy, influential and orthodox Brahmin  
: of the 7th century. 

You're speculating again.  (And reading too much Marxism it seems.)

: More importantly, Sankara does not reject ritualism by rejecting the  
: Vedas, unlike the Buddhist or the Jain. He rejects ritualism by accepting  
: the Vedas, and by pointing out that the karmakANDa is meant for one  
: audience and the jnanakANDa to another totally different audience.

: karmakANDa addresses itself to people whose thinking is limited to worldly  
: affairs, like obtaining a son, or celebrating kingship. The jnanakANDa on  
: the other hand is addressed to the mumukshu, the one who seeks liberation,  
: by definition an other-worldly good.

No.  The karma kanda also deals with other-worldly goals.  (Svargo kama 
yajet.)  Liberation is  beyond any conception of good and evil.  The 
crucial distinction is karma is impermanent,  Moksha is permanent.

: Thus in addition to telling the  
: orthodox Brahmin of his day that ritualism will get him nowhere, Sankara  
: is really telling him that the karmakANDa that he thinks to be supreme is  
: really not so supreme at all.

It is supreme in it's own sphere.  It is not permanent.

: Again this was not going to endear Sankara  
: and his philosophy to the prevalent Brahminism of his day.

Here you go again... :-)

: Sankara's  
: attitude towards ritual is usually cited as yet another indication of a  
: general "Buddhist influence" - you cannot at the same time quite  
: arbitrarily claim that he had a decided preference for Brahmins also.

This "Buddhist Vs Brahmana" dichotomy is overstated in my opinion.  
Samrata Ashoka stipulated that Brahmanas and Shramanas were both to be 
respected.  Raja Harsha also celebrated Buddhist and Shaiva utsaves.  The 
Balinese today even have Buddhist Brahmanas!

: Typically, the Advaita position is that even after countless performances  
: of sacrifices or other meritorious deeds, without the knowledge of the  
: Unity of Atman, there is no liberation. Conversely, the only truly  
: liberating thing which is itself liberation, is Brahman-knowledge. Now who  
: is qualified for gaining such knowledge? Does Sankara say one needs to be  
: born a Brahmin in order to gain such knowledge? Does he say the SUdra has  
: no other go but to be reborn in a higher caste before he can gain such  
: knowledge? No sir. In his BrahmasUtra bhAshya, in the very first chapter,  
: he says the SUdra though not traditionally entitled to the sacred thread  
: or study of the Vedas, can also definitely gain such knowledge through  
: other means.

The other means being the Puranas.  They have no right to study the 

: Read the previous sentence again - it means that a SUdra does  
: not have to take rebirth in a higher caste for liberation, he can acheive  
: Brahman-knowledge rightaway! Orthodox Brahminical casteism, right? 
: Herein lies the seed for the true emancipation of man from caste. The  
: caste in which one is born is just an incidental. It is yet another  
: construct of superimposition. The Atman has no caste. One can be born a  
: Brahmin and not gain Brahman-knowledge at all. One can be born a SUdra at  
: the other end of the social status scale and gain Brahman knowledge.

True.  But only the exceptional individual will make such a tremendous leap.
Most will steadily progress through the castes through a number of lives.

: In the Br. Ar. upanishad bhAshya Sankara again points out that no  
: qualification of caste is necessary for liberation. In fact, performance  
: of rituals which the orthodox Brahmin so loves even till today, can be a  
: positive hindrance to gaining Brahman knowledge! Real preference for  
: Brahminism, wouldn't you say? 

You are exaggerating.  Kamya rituals (performed for selfish 
reasons) are a hindrance.  Nitya and naimittik (daily and periodic) rites 
are a great help in purifying oneself in preperation for sannyasa.
: Coming to samnyAsa. Sankara goes against the established orthodoxy of his  
: time and says that one doesn't need to go through the middle two ASramas  
: before samnyAsa. The orthodox Brahmin quotes scripture and says  
: "brahmachAryam samApya grhI bhavet, grhAdvanI bhUtvA pravrajet" - one  
: should become a householder after completing Brahmacharya, and then later  
: beome a samnyAsi. Sankara quotes the scripture "brahmachAryAdeva  
: pravrajet, grhAdvA vanAdvA yadahareva virajet tadahareva pravrajet" -  
: whether from the ASramas of Brahmacharya or grhastha or vAnaprastha, the  
: moment one gets vairAgya, one should take up samnyAsa. Sankara himself  
: became a samnyAsi without going through marriage and the life of a  
: householder. In his time, this was not at all acceptable to orthodox  
: Brahminism. As late as the 14th century A. D. Vidyaranya draws attention  
: to this in his Sankara-dig-vijaya. So much for Sankara's preference for  
: the Brahminism of his day.  

This "Brahmin orthodoxy" is your own invention.  The idea that one can 
become a sannyasi from any ashram existed long before Shankaracharya.  
Though I admit it was then a minority view.

: Again, is any caste qualification necessary to become a sannyAsi? No. In  
: fact, Sankara says of the parivrAjaka (the wandering monk) "katham  
: varNASrami bhavet?" - how can a monk be bound by varNa and ASrama? A monk  
: is totally outside the caste system. Caste is another mAyA-like thing of  
: this world that he gets liberated from. Pretty comforting to the Brahmin,  
: huh? 

Though Shankaracharya may have said that, he in fact returned home to 
perform his parents shraddha -- a karma.  Which is alright because if you 
examine the shastras, there are many kinds of Sannyasis many of which are 
involved in karmas of various kinds.  Only the Paramhansa is completely 
beyond karma and it's attendant duties.  The Paramhansa is the best of 
sannyasis but by no means the only kind.  And the Paramhansa must shed ALL 
karma.  (Including posting to usenet :-)

: In keeping with such an attitude towards caste, there are thousands of  
: daSanAmi sannyAsis in India and the rest of the world who are not Brahmins  
: by birth. They are by no means "less" in any way than the samnyAsis who  
: were originally Brahmin. Famous examples in recent times are Paramahamsa  
: Yogananda and Swami ChinmayAnanda. The Saiva monks of the Tamil  
: sampradAyas, who are technically SUdra by birth are also highly regarded  
: by the Sankarite monks of south India.   

Certain orders of the Dashanamis only accept Brahmans.  Some accept only 
the Arya varnas.  Some accept all.  All who consider themselves true 
disciples of Shankaracharya must accept the Smarta attitude towards caste 
as he himself did.  The mere fact there are Nastikas who don't, like 
Chinmayananda, who consider themselves Dashanamis is neither here nor there.
Remember one Dashanami, Ananda Tirtha (a.k.a Madhva)  went so far as to 
preach dualism.  Even good parents have bad children sometimes.

: Every society structures itself one way or the other. If not caste, it is  
: class. If not class, it is race or something else. Maybe Sankara did not  
: actively try to elevate lower castes the way Ramanuja tried to do. But  
: then one can hardly expect Sankara who lived only 32 years (to be fair,  
: subtract the years of his infancy and studies) to have eradicated caste.  
: His work in such a short lifetime was rightly preoccupied with philosophy  
: rather than activist social reform. As it is, his views were sufficiently  
: radical in his time for the then Brahmin orthodoxy to have hated him. Part  
: of Sankara's genius lies in pointing out to such orthodoxy that his own  
: views were based on the same scriptures that the orthodox Brahmin upheld.  
: Going by these views of his, Max Weber, the famous sociologist, concludes  
: that Sankara must have been a "half-breed" by birth! 

The leading thinker of the time, Mandana Mishra, debated Shankaracharya 
and lost.  He had the honesty to admit defeat and became a disciple under 
the name Sureshwaracharya.  This is hardly a sign of a hidebound, hateful 
orthodoxy is it?  However, You however are committing intellectual fraud when
you  try to read a 19th century notion like "activist social reform" into
the words of a 7th century author.  And Max Weber may have been a great 
sociologist but he was no scholar of Advaita Vedanta so his views are 

While I agree that Shankaracharya taught that Moksha requires a complete 
renunciation of karma, he was in no way opposed to ritual and "casteism" for 
those in other Ashramas.  In fact like all Astikas, he considered it to be 
mandated for them.

I respectfully urge you to drop your personal agenda and read 
Shankaracharyas words again, this time with an unprejudiced eye, in the 
light of our Sanatana tradition.

-- Jaldhar

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