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Sutra literally means a thread but technically it meant in the ancient Indian context, an aphoristic style of condensing the spectrum of thoughts of a doctrine into terse, crisp, pithy pellets of compressed information that could be easily committed to memory. They are analogous to synoptic notes on a lecture; and by tapping on a note, one hopes to recall the relevant expanded form of the lecture. Perhaps the Sutras were meant to serve a similar purpose. A Sutra is therefore not merely an aphorism but a key to an entire discourse on a subject. Traditionally, each Sutra is regarded as a discourse rather than a statement.
Sri Madhwacharya defined Sutra as Pithy, unambiguous, laying out all the essential aspects of each topic, and dealing with all aspects of the question, free of repetitiveness and flaw.
The concept of Sutra was often carried to its extremes. It is said a Sutrakara would rather give up a child than expend a word. The Sutras often became so terse as to be inscrutable. And, one could read into it any meaning one wanted to. It was said, each according to his merit finds his rewards.
Nevertheless, reducing the main tenets of a school of thought into Sutra form by compiling it from its many acknowledged texts was a well accepted mode for rote learning and study. Each school of thought carried its Sutra compiled by a learned Sutrakara. For instance, the Nyaya School had its Sutra by Gautama; Vaisheshika School by Kanada; Yoga School by Patanjali; Mimamsa School by Jaimini and Vedanta School by Badarayana. Besides, there are a number of Sutras on various other subjects. Badarayana’s Sutra is of course the most celebrated of them all.
[ Of all the Schools , the Samkhya did not seem to have a Sutra of its own. ]
The style of presentation adopted by Badarayana set a model for Sutras that followed. It involved these steps : the statement of an objection or prima facie view (Purva_paksha); an answer or a rebuttal of that stand (Uttara_paksha); and conclusion (Siddantha).Accordingly, a topic for discussion (Adhikarana) is discussed in five steps or limbs: The formulation of the problem; a reasonable doubt about it; the prima facie view; the answer; and conclusion.
The method adopted by a Sutrakara was to refer to a specific passage in a text, say an Upanishad, by a key word, context or a hint to the topic for discussion. The Sutrakara would follow it by Purva_paksha, Uttara_paksha and his conclusion. He would also hint in a word or two , his reasoning. The genius of the commentator, the Bashyakara was to pinpoint Vishesha Vakya the exact statement in the Vedic text referred to by the sutra; to maintain consistency in treatment – in the context and spirit of the original text; to bring out the true intent and meaning of the Sutrakara’s reasoning and conclusions.
Brahma Sutra investigates the Upanishad teachings about God, the world, the individual soul and its deliverance. It attempts to remove the apparent contradictions that existed in its earlier texts and to bind the doctrine coherently. This, it aims to accomplish in almost 564 individual Sutras. The number of topics discussed (Adhikaranas) and the Sutras accepted by the different commentators vary. For instance, Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva have each commented on 192; 156 and 222 Adhikaranas out of 555; 545 and 564 Sutras accepted by them, respectively. The differences might be due to splitting certain Sutras or combing certain others.
The topics discussed (Adhikaranas) are classified under four Chapters (Adhyayas) . Each Adhyaya has under it four parts (Paadas).
Chapter One, Samanvaya (establishing harmony) clarifies that the basic purpose of all Upanishads is to reveal Brahman and that all the Vedanta texts talk of Brahman , which is the ultimate reality. Realizing Brahman is the goal of life. It includes an account of the nature of Brahman and its relation to world and individual soul.
Chapter Two , Avirodha (non conflict) discusses and refutes possible objections against Vedanta raised by other schools of thought like Samkhya, Yoga , Vaisheshika, Buddha, Jaina and some atheist schools; and establishes Vedanta’s views. It also gives an account of the nature of dependence of the world on God; and natural evolution from and re-absorption into God. This is followed by discussion on nature of soul, its attributes, its relation to God, body and its own deeds.
Chapter Three, Sadhana (the means) describes the process by which ultimate emancipation could be achieved. A strong yearning for attaining Brahman and distancing from worldly involvements are considered essential. It declares that with right knowledge (Brahma Vidya), Moksha can be attained here and now.
Chapter Four, Phala (fruits or benefits) talks of the fruits or the benefits of Brahma Vidya. It discusses the state that is achieved in the final emancipation. While a Saguna upasaka goes to other realms of experience, the person of true knowledge realizes his true nature right here and fulfills his life.
Badarayana commences his work with the most repeated and most discussed statement “Athaatho Brahma Jignasaha” (अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा) perhaps to say ”Then, therefore let us examine the subject of Brahman”. Tomes have been written discussing the possible intent and meaning of the ordinary looking two words – then, therefore; and setting out to postulate on Badarayana’s intent in commencing his work with these specific words; refuting explanations put forth by other commentators ; and explaining the basis for his own reasoning. A great extents of the commentaries are , therefore, taken up, both by the explanations on what is explicit in the Sutra, and by elaborations on what is implied and unsaid in the Sutra.
What is remarkable about Brahma Sutra is that each commentator came up with his version of the intent and meaning of the Sutra; and differed from the views of the rest of the commentators. Each one declared his interpretation was the truest interpretation of them all.
Apart from issues such as the status of the phenomenal world; and the nature and means to the liberation of the individual, the moot point of disagreement among the commentators was the status and relation between the individual soul (jiva) and Brahman. The possibilities were that Brahman and jiva could be:
(a) Identical; (b) Identical but qualified; (c) Not Identical and (d) Identical and yet Non Identical.
Each of these lines of possibilities (but declared by its profounder as the only certainty ) gave rise to a school of Vedanta. Such schools sprang up and have since flourished. This phase of development is termed as the Scholastic Phase of Vedanta, which commenced in about Eighth century A.D. Each of these schools gave raise to its sub classifications.
In other words, the schools of Vedanta prevalent today are of a comparatively recent origin. They started springing up about 1,200 years after Badarayana compiled his Brahma Sutra. Each school found its justification in the Brahma Sutra and yet each differed from the other interpretations.
The intervening period, from 5th or 4th centuries BCE to about 8th century AD does not appear to have witnessed such scholastic developments. It all started with Shankara and his celebrated Vedanta Sutra Bashya, a commentary on the Brahma Sutra. Most of the other schools often appeared to be just reacting to Shankara’s position on the Brahma Sutra.
The following is a very brief indication of some main schools of Vedanta, in a concise form.
(Identity) Brahman alone is real- One without a second- transcends all attributes. Brahman and the individual soul are essentially identical. The difference is only apparent, caused by Avidya, ignorance .World is not an illusion. It is relatively real. Brahman is absolutely real. Liberation involves in realizing one’s identity with Brahman, through elimination of ignorance. Purpose of life is to realize Brahman.
(Qualified Identity) It is oneness of God with attributes or Vishesha. Brahman is the Supreme Person Narayana endowed with all auspicious attributes. He alone exists, everything is his manifestation or attributes. Individual soul is part of Brahman and hence similar but not identical. Brahman, matter and individual souls are distinct but mutually inseparable entities. Loving devotion and surrender to Narayana is the only path to Moksha, liberation and is possible with the grace of God. Moksha consists in jiva remaining in undisturbed bliss in presence of Narayana in Vaikunta. Jiva lives in fellowship with the Lord. Moksha does not involve destruction of the individual self.
Madhavacharya ; Dvaita
(non Identity) Brahman is identified with Vishnu, the all important and Supreme One endowed with all auspicious attributes. He is not impersonal. Bedha or difference is the cornerstone of the doctrine. It is unqualified dualism. There are infinite numbers of jivas, which are point-like and each jiva is separate from the other; and jivas are separate from God and depend on God for being and becoming. Reality is described as a fivefold distinction-between God and jiva; God and matter; jiva and jiva; jiva and matter; and matter and phenomena. The cause of bondage is the Will of the Supreme and ignorance of jiva. Liberation is release from cycle of births and deaths; and is possible with devotion to Vishnu and comes through the mediation of Vayu. Liberated jiva does not lose its identity. It is entitled to serve the Lord.
Nimbaraka charya: Bedhabheda
( identity in difference, dualistic monism) Brahman is the supreme reality, one without a second, the infinite reality. The world and jiva are only partial manifestations of His power. Jiva and world are different from God because they are endowed with qualities and are limited; at the same time they are not different from God because God is omnipresent and all beings exist in God. Souls and God are closely related as waves within water or coils of rope within the rope. They are both distinct and not distinct from Brahman. Salvation is attained by real knowledge and devotion. Salvation consists in the soul realizing its true nature. It attains the state of Brahman but has NO powers of creation, preservation and dissolution of the world.
( Pure monism) It is Pure monism because it does not admit Maya (illusion). Brahman is personal. Krishna, Purushottama, in his Sacchidananda form is Brahman. He is ever playing sport (Leela) from Gokula which is even beyond Vaikunta. World and jiva are one with Brahman in essence and are a subtle form of God. Jiva in Reality is non-dual and it is pure. The embodied jiva is defiled and impure and it must strive towards the pure state through Bhakthi, devotion, love and grace (pusti). It calls for complete surrender to Krishna, Atma nivedana (giving up oneself). The liberated souls are of different kinds. Some dwell in the city of the Lord, while some others develop perfect love for God and become His associates.