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Re: superstitions

In a series of recent postings, the Dvaita philosophy of Madhva has
been assailed as, among other things, "the cruelest joke perpetrated
in the name of Vedanta," and so forth. I do not wish to criticize the
gentlemen who made these claims, but here are my counterpoints, which
they may consider worthy of their attention.

To my mind, the most attractive thing about Madhva's approach is the
freedom with which one can question -- you can be taught a text like
his "Vishnu-Tatva-Vinirnaya" by a Guru, and it is obvious how each
point follows logically from the previous, and how each point answers
a doubt that may exist in your mind from understanding the previous.
Not to put too fine a point on it, there is not one point in Madhva
philosophy that I have been able to successfully assail, in spite of
my best efforts to do so out of a love of argument and perhaps even
due to a sincere effort to understand to the best of my ability. My
reverence is not a result of my birth or upbringing; it is a result of
the cumulative respect that has built up in my mind for a very great
scholar, undoubtedly the greatest of all time.

Some of you may not know that the name "Madhva" is not the name given
to Ananda Tiirtha -- he was born to a brahmana called Madhyageha
Bhatta, and had the name Vaasudeva as a child. On taking up sanyaasa
at the age of eleven, he was given the name Ananda Tiirtha by his guru
Akshobhya Tiirtha. The reason he is referred to as Madhva is that he
is universally recognized, even by his opponents, as the third
avataara of Mukhya Praana, also known as Vaayu, as referred to in the
Balittha Suukta of the Rg Veda. The first two avataaras are as
Hanumaan and Bhiimasena, and the third is Madhva, who came down to
earth as a sanyaasi, in order to avoid decimating the forces of evil
(as he had done on the previous two occasions, and as he would have
done again if he were not a sanyaasi) and thus upsetting Kali Yuga
which has been ordained by the Lord as a time when the forces of evil
rule, and to re-establish the true Vedanta which had suffered
grieviously from the assaults of the Bauddha and prachchanna-Bauddha

One unquestionable contribution of Maadhva doctrine is the sterling
footing on which his logic is based. His work Pramaana Lakshana is
undoubtedly a work of the greatest importance in logic, as I can
personally attest from having studied mathematical logic. He does not
ever use a term loosely, or without adequate definition -- indeed, his
concept of a definition "Lakshya maatra vyaapako dharmo lakshanam" is
better than that found in any other branch of philosophy. None of his
claims is made without a pramaana, and unlike Sankara, he does not
claim to accept the Vedas as scriptural authority and then denigrate
most of them as "atatvaavedaka." In fact, Sankara's claim is that all
the Vedas are of two kinds -- tatvaavedaka (telling the truth) and
atatvaavedaka (telling falsehoods). Now, it is obvious to me that if
the Vedas were to contain just _one_ falsehood in them somewhere, the
whole of them would be useless to us as scripture -- this is the
mathematical standard of scriptural accuracy that I consider to be
correct, and which Madhva accepts but Sankara conveniently does not.

In fact, Sankara's claim that some of the statements in the Vedas
(that are easier for him to misinterpret in his favor) are
mahaavaakyas and the rest are alpa-vaakyas, is just a ploy to get by
this major objection.  He tries to artificially create a dichotomy of
standards in praamaanya, with himself as the arbiter. Then, as Madhva
points out, and as I believe to be perfectly correct, the sanctity of
the scriptures themselves vanishes, since the guru who decides which
is worthwhile and which not, is above them both, and as then we might
just as well use him as the pramaana, instead of trying to pore thru
scriptures most of which are supposed to lie. This is akin to saying
that in a dictatorship, where the dictator decides which of the
courts' decisions are valid and which not, we do not have a free
judiciary, and we might as well go straight to the dictator and not
bother with the courts, as what they say will not be the final word,

This selective denigration-of-convenience is all right up to a point,
but it falls apart rapidly upon closer examination. In fact, as some
of you may be aware, there is the famous story that Sankara himself
recanted his life's work while on his death-bed, as he felt that in
spite of his vast knowledge and intellect, he had left fatal flaws in
the theory he propounded, and as he was then convinced that his
erstwhile theory could not be supported -- he then composed the famous
song "Bhaja Govindam," even tho he had never bothered with worship
throughout his life. While he was dying, he was asked by his concerned
shishyas if the illness which was taking away his life at a young age
was too painful -- he replied "rogo na baadhyate, sahayogo baadhyate"
(the illness is not the obstruction, the together(ness) [of the soul
and Lord -- implying difference] is the obstruction). He was referring
to the Rg Veda's saying "Dvaa suparna sayuja sukhaayaa..." where it is
clearly stated that the soul experiences bliss _together_with_ the
Lord (as against _as_one_with_ the Lord. Ever the thinker, Sankara
admitted that upto his last breath, he had not been able to explain
this verse, or do away with it as atatvaavedaka, and then finally
accepted that he had been wrong, as a true scholar.

Unlike what has been claimed, the explanation Madhva gives for for
Uddhaalaka's statements to Shwetaketu in the sixth chapter of the
Chaandogya Upanishad: "Sa AtmA'tatvamasi Shwetaketo" is consonant with
the rules for Sanskrit vyaakarana, and also rings true.  I do not have
the time at present to tackle all the other issues that have been
raised, but I will try to briefly explain why this specific claim is

                 "Sa AtmA'tatvamasi Shwetaketo"

To understand the meaning of the statement correctly, it is necessary
to know the exact circumstances under which it was spoken. Indeed,
this is completely true of any statement, not just one from scripture.
Otherwise, there is a risk that something may have been misquoted or
quoted out-of-context.

The statement was spoken nine times to Shwetaketu (who is, it may
interest you to know, the person who is credited with standardizing
the institution of marraige -- before him, people were not required to
marry, and could conduct their lives as they chose; he ended that when
he realized that depravity and irresponsibility on the part of mankind
made it necessary that a strict regime be enforced, but that was later
than the events described in the Upanishad). The speaker
was his father Uddhaalaka, and this is reported in the sixth chapter
of the Chaandogya Upanishad. The background to the event where the
statement was made is as follows --

Shwetaketu spent twelve years studying the Vedas from a Guru, in
accord with the rules prescribed for Brahmachaaris. Upon returning
from his teacher on completing his studies, he boasted to his father
that he had mastered the Vedas and was now an authority.  The
concerned parent Uddhaalaka realized the arrogance that was part of
Shwetakeu's thinking had to be gotten rid of, and therefore instructed
Shwetaketu to fast for fifteen days, with only water to drink -- if
the Apa-abhimaani mukhya-praana had left his body, Shwetaketu would
have died, so it was essential that he be allowed water. At the end of
this time, he called Shwetaketu and asked him to show his prowess in
the Vedas, again. Weak with starvation, Shwetaketu pleaded inability
to remember what he had learned. After this, Uddhaalaka asked him to
have a meal, upon which his strength and memory were restored.  After
this, knowing that Shwetaketu's humility had been satisfactorily
restored, Uddhaalaka proceeded to instruct him, saying: "Sa AtmA
'tatvamasi Shwetaketo," no fewer than nine times, each time
with a different example to illustrate a point.
The sentence "Sa AtmA'tatvamasi Shwetaketo" can be split perfectly
correctly under the rules of grammar, as either:
Sa AtmA atat tvam asi Shwetaketo, or as:
Sa AtmA  tat tvam asi Shwetaketo.

It is to be noted that the word "tat," the same in either
interpretation, cannot be a pronoun that refers to a nirguna Brahman,
because Uddhaalaka does not refer anywhere in the text to such a
Brahman. If it is taken to be the saguna Brahman or Paramaatman, then
the tat interpretation runs counter to experience, because it is clear
that we do not possess qualities the Paramaatman does (infinite power,
joy, knowledge etc.)  -- it also runs counter to scriptural evidence
such as Krishna saying "Dvaa vimou purushou loke' ..." in the 'Gita

In the shaastras, it is said that whenever there is confusion among
possible interpretations of a verse, we should use the drshtaanta
vaakya (statements of example) given along with it, to decide the
correct one(s). Since as has been pointed out, Uddhaalaka's statement
to Shwetaketu can be interpreted in two ways both sanctioned by
grammar, it is necessary to consider the examples and decide if the
tat or the atat interpretation is the right one.

The first example given by Uddhaalaka to Shwetaketu is that of a
shakuni (bird) that is bound by a suutra (thread) to a support. The
bird tries to fly all around the territory that it is allowed by the
limitation of the thread, but eventually gets back to the support when
tired. So also are all creatures tied to the Lord who acts as their
invisible support, and even though the jiva tries to break free of
bondage and to act independently, it eventually comes back to the Lord
Himself for solace, finding no other source. In the waking state, the
soul tries to go around and tries to ignore the Lord, but during
sleep, and eventually, during mukti, it comes back to seek solace at
the feet of the Lord. Now, this example is clearly against the tat
interpretation, as it is impossible to conceive that the bird and the
support are the same, or that the restriction placed on the bird is
meant to signify illusion.

In the second example, Uddhaalaka tells Shwetaketu, just as bees
gather the juices of various flowers and fruits, and collect them to
form honey, after which the individual juices are not identifiable in
the context of the total honey, the jiva are brought together by the
Lord, and do not realize their origins. So long as they do not
understand their origins and persist in ignoring the Lord's grace, or
in thinking of themselves as one with the Lord, they continue to
suffer the cycle of births and deaths, and undergo births under low
species such as tiger, lion, wolf, wild boar, insect, butterfly, tiny
biting animals, etc. How does a jiva falsely perceive identity between
him/her-self and the Lord? By attempting to act independently of the
Lord, with lack of due devotion and gratitude, and by ignoring the
dharma that He has laid down for the jiva to follow. It can be said
that whenever anyone thinks too highly of himself and tries to act
independantly, (s)he has assumed the Lord's qualities of Independence,
infinite ability, etc., and will suffer the consequences once the
illusion lapses, as it must.
Uddhaalaka says that just as the juices in the honey are not aware of
their separate existence, but merely identify with the honey, so are
all creatures unaware of their separate existence from the body, and
do identify with the body. Whereas the body is in-dwelt by a number of
abhimaani devas who run various functions of the body, the jiva
perceives only itself in the body, and thinks falsely that it is the
lord of its body. Until the soul realizes that it is completely
distinct from the body and is brought into Creation by the Lord, it is
bound to suffer the painful misery of ever-repeated births and deaths.
This second example also does not support the tat interpretation that
seeks to espouse unity ofjiva and Paramaatman -- note that Uddhaalaka
is saying that a soul _fails_to_realize_ its distinctiveness, just as
the juices in the honey fail to realize theirs, and that it must learn
to realize it.  So, this means that the juices in the honey _are_
distinct, even if we cannot tell them apart; it is not the case that
this is being used to justify abheda -- indeed, Uddhaalaka goes so far
as to give a stern warning to Shwetaketu, and by inference also to us,
that falsely perceiving unity with the Lord is going to keep us in the
cycle of births and deaths, and is going to cause us to suffer the
ignominy of births under low species.
At this point, Shwetaketu asks his father how it can be that he,
Shwetaketu, does not perceive that there is anyone residing in his
body but himself, and how can it be he comes to rest in the Lord? The
example given by Uddhaalaka is difficult, because he, Shwetaketu, is
living person, while the juices in the honey are not, and so how can
he understand that just as the juices come to together in the honey,
so also the jiva comes to rest in the Lord, during sleep and mukti?

The third example given is that of rivers, which flow either eastward
or westward, and reach the sea. Though they are born out of the sea
and reach it finally, they have their separate identity while flowing
on land.  Before they are brought out by Suurya and the clouds, they
are unable to distinguish themselves when in the sea.  Here,
Uddhaalaka gives an example where the abhimaani devas of the rivers
are not aware which of the water in the sea is theirs and which not,
but the Lord, acting through Suurya as Suurya-Naaraayana is aware, and
chooses the right river water out of the sea, and puts it back into
the river source. The jiva are not aware of the Lord's grace and
mercy, and do not realize the part His actions play, but they are
dependent on Him, and have to realize this fact. In this example also,
it is not possible to see abheda, as it is being pointed out that the
soul's not realizing that the Lord is present in his body is actually
an indicator of ignorance -- Uddhaalaka does not say that the river
water in the sea is not distinct; he implies it is, even tho the Lord
realizes it but the abhimaanis of the rivers themselves do not. The
example therefore does nothing to support the identity of soul and
Lord, and rules out the tat interpretation.
In the next example, we hear of a living tree, one that is inhabited
by a jiva. If any branch, leaf or other part of the tree is abandoned
by AtmA, it dries up. If the tree is injured at the root or at a
branch, causing sap or other juice to flow through the cut, it still
continues to live, getting water and nutrients from the ground, and
enjoying life. If the tree as a whole is abandoned by the AtmA, it
dies. Here, the words 'jiva' and 'AtmA' are used, which are taken to
mean the same thing, soul, in common literature and thinking. However,
in the scriptures 'AtmA' is a word that is used primarily to describe
the Lord (For example, the Kathopanishad's "Naivam AtmA pravachanena
labhyo... -- meaning "The Lord is not obtainable thru discourse ..."),
who is called so because he is responsible for life wherever it is
found.  In this example, we see that it is the Lord's grace whose
importance is being stated: the tree, or the jiva who mistakenly
believes that it is the only entity that inhabits the body of the
tree, and tries to enjoy life in ignorance of the Lord, is powerless
to act against Him.  Should the Lord choose to abandon any portion of
the tree body, that part dies, and the whole of the tree dies when the
Lord abandons it.  Here also, it is impossible to even conceive of
identity between soul and Lord, who are described as having such
vastly different properties.  This example illustrates that the
continued life of the soul in the body it inhabits is subject to the
will of the Lord, who is different from it.  The tree continues to
live and enjoy even when subjected to injury that causes loss of body
fluids, but dies immediately when the resident AtmA departs.
The fifth example given is that of the huge Nyagrodha (Hindi: Vata)
tree.  Shwetaketu was asked by his father to bring the fruit of the
tree, and to break it into parts. He was then asked what he saw. He
replied that he could see small bits. He was asked by Uddhaalaka to
divide the bits further, and again asked what he saw. He replied that
he saw even smaller particles. His father asked him to divide the
small particles, again, and asked him again what he saw.  This time,
he replied that he saw nothing at all. Uddhaalaka then said that the
mighty Nyagrodha tree arises out of that seemingly invisible particle.
So also, the Lord who is the source and cause of life is extremely
difficult to perceive because of His suukshmatva (fineness, roughly
translated). Krishna says something very similar in the thirteenth
chapter of the 'Gita, when he says: "Suukshmatvaat tat avigneyam..."
This further answers Shwetaketu's old query why he could not observe
the Lord who was residing in his body, and further debunks the notion
of unity between the soul and Lord. In this example, the whole
universe is represented by the tree, the body by its fruit, the small
but invisible particles are the souls, and the entity that indwells
even the souls and is responsible for the universe and all its
entities, is the Lord.  
For the next example, Uddhaalaka gives some salt to his son, and asks
him to put it in water overnight. The next morning, he asks Shwetaketu
to bring the salt that was put in the water the previous evening.
Shwetaketu says he is unable to see any of the salt that he had
deposited in the water, upon which Uddhaalaka asks him to sample the
water from various parts of the vessel (top, middle, bottom, etc.) and
confirm that it is uniformly salty, throughout. In the previous
example of the tree and its invisible seed, the capacity of the Lord
is seen in one place, but He himself is not. In this next example, the
Lord's power, as represented by the saltiness of the water, is seen
uniformly throughout, even though the salt itself, representing the
Lord, is not.  
The next example given is that of a traveler from Gandhaara (now in
Afghanistan), who is waylaid by robbers, tied and blindfolded, and
left in a lonely forest far away from his own land. The man tries to
free himself, but in vain, and remains sightless and under bondage
until a kindly Samaritan releases opens his blindfold and binds, and
directs him to Gandhaara. As he proceeds home, he has occasion to ask
various other Samaritans for directions, as even though he may know
the general direction to be taken, he still has need, from time to
time, for specific instructions, do's and don'ts.  In this example,
the bondage resulting from the soul's agnaana is depicted as the
traveler's blindfold and binds. The soul, as represented by the
traveler, is unable to free itself, until a teacher, represented by
the kindly Samaritan, frees it from bondage and opens its vision. The
teacher also points out the correct path to the soul's destiny, and
the soul follows it, aided from time to time by other teachers who
instruct him from time to time. At the end of the journey, the
traveler reaches his home, and the soul reaches the Lord from whom it
is separated. In this example also, the unity of the soul and the Lord
is not intended -- the traveler is not the same as the region of
Gandhaara nor the same as any of the Samaritans.
In the penultimate example, the dependence of the soul in a human body
on the Lord is illustrated, just as it was with the tree body.
Uddhaalaka pictures the scene as follows -- a man is lying on his
death-bed, surrounded by relatives. In the dying man, the vaak
(speech) merges with the manas (mind), the manas with the praana
(life-force) and the praana with the tejas (energy). This reference to
the merging is to the abhimaani devas of each entity named, rather
than to the entities themselves. The dying man is asked by the
relatives who surround him: "Do you know me?" And he answers them as
long as his speech is still with him. After the speech merges with the
mind, he is unable to answer, but still has a functional mind, and is
aware of his surroundings. When the mind merges with the life-force,
he loses consciousness, but is still alive. When the final dissolution
takes place with the life-force returning to energy, the man dies. In
this example, the soul's absolute and irreversible dependence on the
Lord is illustrated. This very dependence assures us that the soul and
the Lord are distinct and will ever be so, and that the tat
interpretation is not correct.

In the last example, a man suspected of theft is arrested by a king's
men, who present him before the king for justice. The king orders that
the suspect be made to grasp a red-hot axe with his bare hands; if he
is innocent, the heat will not affect him at all, and he can be
released, while if he is guilty, the fact of his guilt will be proved
and he will be suitably punished for his crime. In this illustration,
the suspect, the objects stolen, and the king, are all completely
different, and unity is not illustrated.  Just as the suspect will
suffer severe punishment if he is guilty of theft, the soul will
suffer great misery if it attempts to take on the unique and
irreproducible characteristics of the Lord.
The Moksha-Dharma parva of the Mahaabhaarata states that those who
talk of identity with the Lord are "Anaipunaha shaastratatvavignaaya"
(unskilled in interpreting the Vedas), Brahmastena (thieves who try to
steal the Brahman's unique attributes by trying to claim identity with
him), Apakvamanasaaha (with "unripe" minds -- minds not fully
functional in appreciation of truth). Therefore, Uddhaalaka is
cautioning Shwetaketu against such tendencies of "theft," and is _not_
saying that Shwetaketu is identical to the Lord. In fact, as has been
pointed out before, he warns of dire consequences, if Shwetaketu fails
to correctly apprehend the significance and distinctiveness of the

Shrisha Rao


(posted from a friend's account - mine does not have an AFS mount)

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