Adhyasa Bhashya of Sri Sankara

01 Sep

sri sankara

1. The magnificent prelude that Sri Sankara wrote to his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras is celebrated as The Adhyasa Bashya. It is in fact not a Bhashya; it is not a commentary. It is an independent piece of writing, which served as a prologue to his main work.

2. The Adhyasa Bashya is remarkable in many ways. It is not a lengthy work; it is less than fifty lines divided into five sections. It is a free flowing writing. Sri Sankara lucidly puts forth his views. While doing so, he does not cite any traditional text or authority in support of his views. He does not denounce or attack any school of thought (vada). He is not propagating a new school of thought or a new argument. He assures that the significance of the initial discussion will be realized in the main commentary, which seeks to restore the true interpretation of the. Vedanta tradition as contained in the Vedanta Sutra. Adhyasa Bashya is a rare gem in the field of philosophical texts.

3. Attaining ones aspirations and expectations by resort to rituals had caught the imagination of the common people, though the Vedanta tradition advocated wisdom as the sole means for attaining ones goals in life. However, some thinkers diluted the rigorous position by combing Upanishad teachings with rituals to make it appealing to the common people. This they called ‘jnana_karma_samucchaya”– a two- in- one of wisdom and ritual.

3.1. Sri Sankara viewed this as a distortion of the Upanishad ideals. In order to play down the prominence given to rituals by the Mimamsakas, Sri Sankara relied on the idea of avidya He bracketed the ritualistic approach with avidya and called it an “error”.

4. Avidya is a word that occurs in Upanishads, though not often. The word Vidya is used to denote effective discrimination and avidya is the absence of it. Sri Sankara states wisdom (vidya) can eliminate ignorance (avidya); but the ignorance it eliminates is not real, because it has no existence of its own. Once the error is removed the Universe (Brahman) will reveal of its own accord.

4.1. Sri Sankara explains, darkness and light are distinct from each other in their nature and in their functions. Darkness has no existence of its own; it is merely the absence of light.Wheareas, the light is positive and helps vision. Darkness and light can neither coexist nor share their functions or nature. Darkness is an error that can be removed.

5. Sri Sankara states in his prologue , the main purpose of the Upanishads is to provide the Knowledge(vidya) that will eliminate darkness , ignorance(avidya) , which is in the nature of “reality transfer” (adhyasa). He thereafter goes on to explain the concept adhyasa.

5.1.Adhyasa, according to Sri Sankara, is not an intellectual construct (kalpana_viseha) but a matter of experience (anubhava). Sri  Sankara says we do it all the time.Adhyasa consists in mistaking one thing and its attributes for another; superimposing one level of reality over other. This we do every day. 

For instance; we measure the duration of the day with reference to sunrise ; and , reckon our existence in terms of days/weeks/months / years which again are related to motion of the Sun. But, in the absolute view, the Sun neither raises nor sets; but , it is the earth that rotates . For our day-today  existence we accept and go by the relative -reality of the diurnal motion of the Sun,  and also ignore the fact of earth’s rotation. Both these positions are real in their own sphere ; but,  one is a ‘relative reality’ and the other is the ‘Absolute reality’. We , in our living , impose the relative reality over the Absolute; and accept the relative as the Real . 

Thus, an individual experiences the world through his senses, mind and other ways of perception. His experience of the world may be tainted by the defect in his senses or other constraints, internal or external. Nevertheless, that person creates his own set of norms, impressions and experiences and he accepts those subjective experiences as real.

5.2. A special feature of Sri Sankara’s thought is that he regards personal and intuitive experience (anubhava) as independent and convincing evidence. Sri Sankara says that individual’s experience cannot be disputed, because the experience he went through was real to him; though that may not be real from the absolute point of view. Sankara makes a distinction between the absolute view and the relative view of things.

6. In short, what the person does is, he imposes his transactional experience (relative or dual) over the transcendental (absolute) and accepts the former as real. That subjective experience need not be proved or disproved . However, the confusion it created can be removed by wisdom (vidya). According to Sri Sankara the world we experience is not absolutely real but it is not false either. The real is that which cannot be negated and that which is beyond  contradiction.

6.1. Sri Sankara explains that vyavaharika (relative) and para_marthika (absolute) both are real. However, the relative reality is “limited” in the sense it is biologically or mechanically determined and it is not beyond contradictions. The absolute on the other hand is infinite (everlasting and unitary (meaning utter lack of plurality)). 

Sri  Sankara is careful to point out that the two dimensions – Vyavaharika and Paramarthika – are two levels of experiential variations. It does not mean they are two orders of reality. They are only two perspectives. Whatever that is there is REAL and is not affected by our views

6.2. The Self in the vyavaharika context is saririka (embodied self); it encounters the world. However, the Self in reality is not saririka; it is absolute, asaririka and is infinite. The infinite Self, perceived as the limited self (jiva) is what Sri Sankara calls as Adhyasa.

7. The dichotomy between being an individual-in-the-world (jiva) and being originally a pure, transcendental consciousness (atman) is taken by Sri  Sankara as merely superficial.According to Sri  Sankara, it is due to avidya that the individual fails to see the nexus between Being and the world. That nexus indicates the oneness underlying the subject-object, inner-outer, Man-Nature distinctions. All that is required is to remove the error and the universe will shine on its own accord.

8. The analogy given in the text is that of a pond that is clear and undisturbed .One can see the bottom of the pond through its still water. When, however, pebbles are thrown into the pond, the water in it is disturbed and the bottom of the pond becomes no longer visible. That bottom however is there all the time and it remains unchanged, no matter whether the surface water is disturbed or not. The water in the pond is the transactional world. The bottom of the pond is the transcendental reality. The disturbance created is avidya

[It is difficult to find an exact English word for adhyasa. It may, among other things, mean “superimposition”,” projection” etc. adhyasa is more comprehensive than that. Sri Sankara, in my view, recognizes three levels ofexistence, the Absolute, the relative and the illusory. Adhyasa consists in superimposing one level of existence (relative/illusory) over the other (The Absolute) and accepting the former as true while it may actually be untrue.The absolute (atman) appearing as the limited (jiva) is what Sri  Sankara calls adhyasa. (For more on this please seeAdhyasa ]

9.Extending the concept of Adhyasa, Sri  Sankara says, we superimpose the body, the sense organs and the mind on the Self(infinite) and we use expressions like: ‘I am fat’, ‘I am thin’, ‘I am white’, ‘I am black’, ‘I stand’, ‘I go’, ‘I am dumb’, ‘I am deaf’, ‘I think’, ‘I am not going to fight’, ‘I shall renounce’ and so on. In this way, we superimpose our mind on the Atman, which is the eternal witness. We do it the other way also by superimposing self on the mind, the non-Self. According to Sankara, the relation between mind and self involves mutual superimposition (itaretara-adhyasa). This relation is false since there cannot be any real relation between the self and the non-self. This confusion or adhyasa is innate to us, and is a matter of common experience.

10. Sri  Sankara says, the purpose of Upanishads is to remove adhyasa or avidya; and once it is removed, Brahman will shine of its accord, for it is the only reality. This doctrine of Sri  Sankara became the nucleus for the development of the Advaita school of thought.

11. As regards the rituals, Sri  Sankara says, the person who performs rituals and aspires for rewards will view himself in terms of the caste into which he is born, his age, the stage of his life, his standing in society etc. In addition, he is required to perform rituals all through his life. However, the Self has none of those attributes or tags. Hence, the person who superimposes all those attributes on the changeless, eternal Self and identifies Self with the body is confusing one for the other; and is therefore an ignorant person. The scriptures dealing with rituals, rewards etc. are therefore addressed to an ignorant person.

11.1This ignorance (mistaking the body for Self) brings in its wake a desire for the well being of the body ,aversion for its disease or discomfort, fear of its destruction and thus a host of miseries(anartha).This anartha is caused by projecting karthvya(“doer” sense) and bhokthavya (object) on the Atman. Sri Sankara calls this adhyasa. The scriptures dealing with rituals, rewards etc. are therefore, he says, addressed to an ignorant person.

11.2.In short, person who engages in rituals with the notion “I am an agent, doer, thinker”, according to Sri Sankara, is ignorant, as his behavior implies a distinct, separate doer/agent/knower ; and an object that is to be done/achieved/known. That duality is avidya, an error that can be removed by vidya.

11.3. Sri Sankara elsewhere explains that, when such acts are performed by a person without desire for the fruits of his actions, by recognizing the reality that there is neither a “doer” nor an “object”, then that instills in him the desire for Brahma-vidya, which takes him closer to vidya.

12.Sri Sankara affirming his belief in one eternal unchanging reality (Brahman) and the illusion of plurality, drives home the point that Upanishads deal not with rituals but with the knowledge of the Absolute (Brahma vidya) and the Upanishads give us an insight into the essential nature of the Self which is identical with the Absolute, the Brahman.

white lotus

Sri Sankara

1. Sri Sankara was an original thinker. He was a leader.Hewas not a dreaming idealist but a practical visionary.Scripture and reason were the two aids in his arguments. He was a great logician, who based his arguments entirely on the principles of logic but without contradicting the intuitional revelations of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Sri Sankara’s thought gave a new dimension to Indian philosophy. It restored the position of Upanishads as the pristine source of knowledge. It established Vidya, wisdom as the true source of light. It put reason and discretion at the center stage and pushed the rituals out of contention.

2. He ushered in a new way of looking at our world, at our experience in/with it, by introducing the relative and absolute view of the Universe. When he talked about the infinite and time less nature of the Universe, it was not in the sense of endless duration, but in the sense of completeness, requiring neither a before nor an after. When he referred to Unity of self he was not talking of putting two things together, but he used the term to mean utter absence of all plurality in the real Self. The western world had to wait until the beginning of twentieth century to arrive at those concepts.

3. He gave credence to an individual’s subjective experience. He placed personal experience and intuition above all the other means of cognition. He said a person’s experience could not be disputed. He declared, “Intuition is not opposed to intellect. Reality is experience. Realizing the Supreme Being is within ones experience.”

4. He recognized the underlying oneness and the infinite nature of the universe. He asserted, “I am not the mind or the intellect not the ego. I am the blissful form of the Brahman.” He redefined the relation between the Man, World and the Universe. He said they were One. Duality, he said, was an error in perception.

5. His is not a system opposed to other systems, but a method of interpretation of values. His is a voice of reason and sanity. Sri  Sankara is therefore relevant even today. He values reason, encourages spirit of inquiry, gives credence to subjective experience and therefore to freedom of ones thought and expression. He suggests intellect is not opposed to intuition. He asks us to take the small ego out of the equation in our day-to-day activities of life. He implores us to recognize the essential unity of all beings and their oneness with the infinite space-time continuum. He explained, the Universe is the manifestation of the Supreme Being.

6. Vedanta of Sri Sankara comes as a remedy to the conflict and violence ridden ways of our life.

7. Swami Vivekananda aptly described Sri Sankara’s Advaita as the fairest flower of philosophy that any country in any age has produced


Please also read

Sankara – a genius, misunderstood

Deeply indebted to
Prof.SKR Rao


Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Sri Sankara, Vedanta


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4 responses to “Adhyasa Bhashya of Sri Sankara

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Good work Mr. Sreenivas..I have started the study of advaitha philosophy just out of curiosity. I have been an atheist for a long time, happened to come across a book called
    “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and was deeply impressed by it. Then it came across my mind that Advaitha is no different than it.

    Now I feel, why did such a good philosophy has been misinterpreted..people are becoming more and more ritualistic..the adhyasa that Sankara tried to unveil is masking again the same people who are claiming that they are followers of Sankara..

    Would like to invite you to my blog (Hoping that you can understand and read kannada, if not please excuse my invite)

    Harsha Matadh

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      Dear Harish, Wow…You dug out and breathed fresh life into an old and forgotten blog. I believe that was posted that more than two years ago, which in the blog-world is a relic. Sri Sankara’s Adyasa Bashya is a text I highly regard. It is straight out of the heart; free-flowing; not encumbered by quotations; and, devoid of rancor or attacks. He puts forward his position directly and briefly. Adhyasa Bashya is a rare gem in the field of philosophical texts.

      What you say of the followers of Sri Sankara is substantially true.Few philosophers in the world are as misunderstood and misinterpreted as Sri Sankara; and, most of the harm came from his admirers and followers. The ideas that Sri Sankara rejected came back to the Advaita fold; and, the wisdom –oriented teachings of Sri Sankara became as much a face of Advaita as the rituals, worships and other practices.

      Sri Sankara treated ignorance (avidya) as an error, the removal of which led to wisdom (vidya).He left it at that. His followers however, wrote tomes speculating the causes for ignorance, nature of ignorance, different forms of ignorance etc.Had the Master watched his disciples at work he might have wondered whether they were studying about Brahman or about ignorance.

      For more on that please see Sri Sankara: a genius misunderstood.


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Noticed following lines in your writing:

    9.Extending the concept of adhyasa, Sankara says, we superimpose the body, the sense organs and the mind on the Self(infinite) and we use expressions like: ‘I am fat’, ‘I am thin’, ‘I am white’….

    But in Adhyasa Bhashya, Self is NOT Infinite or Shudha aatma. It is just Praagna or Kshetragna. I think it is becuase of placing Shudha aatma for “Asmat pratyaya gochara” that all these confusions have araisen. How can Shudha aatma be “pratyaya gochara”?

    Even in Bhagavad Gita, it is said “Kshetra Kshetragnayoho, Vishaya Vishaniyoho etc.”. So, Adhyasa is between Kshethra and Kshethragna (Praagna) and NOT between Kshethra and Shudha Aatma.

    Anil Vajranabha

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 3:35 pm

      Dear Shri Anil , Thanks for the visit.

      I appreciate the clarification you provided.



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