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Who was Upavarsa ..?

Upavarsha is one of the remarkable sage-scholars who come through the mists of ancient Indian traditions. And, again, not much is known about him.

Upavarsha is recognized as one of the earliest and most authoritative thinkers of the Vedanta and Mimamsa Schools of thought. He is placed next only to the author of the Brahma sutra.  Among the many commentaries on Brahma sutra the one by Upavarsha was most highly regarded.  It is believed that the words of Sri Sankara explain the correct account of Upavarsha’s doctrines. He is quoted twice by Sri Sankara in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya (3.3.53).  

Upavarsha was  looked upon as an authority by all branches of Vedanta Schools; and  is respected in the Mimamsa School also. Both Sabaraswamin and Bhaskara treat the ancientVrttikara as an authority; and, quote his opinions as derived from ‘the tradition of Upavarsha ‘ (Upavarsha-agama).  Bhaskara calls Upavarsha as ‘shastra-sampradaya- pravarttaka’ ; the promulgator of the pristine traditions of the Shastras

[ A Vritti is a short gloss explaining the aphorisms in a slightly more elaborate way; but not as extensively as a Bhashya, a detailed commentary/critique. A Vrttikara is thus a commentator on traditional texts, providing brief explanatory notes. The most well known of the Vrttikara-s are Upavarsha and Bodhayana.]

Upavarsha’s time is surmised to be  around 500-300 BCE. We come to know Upavarsha through references to his views by Sri Sankara and others. He was an intellectual giant of his times. He is credited with being the first to divide the Vedic lore into Karma-kanda (ritualistic section) and Jnana-kanda (knowledge section).

As said ;the earliest Acharya to have commented upon Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra is believed to be Upavarsha.  His sub-commentary (Vritti) on Brahma Sutra is titled asSariraka-mimamsa-vritti. Sri Sankara and his disciples make frequent references to the works of Vrittikara-s, commentators on the   Brahma Sutra; and, in particular to Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti of sage Upavarsha.

It is said; the ancient commentator Sabaraswamy drew upon Upavarsha for his commentary on Mimamsa-Sutra. Another ancient writer Sundarapandya is also said to have commented in his Varttika on Upavarsha’s Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti. Sri Sankara too relied upon Upavarsha‘s Vritti for his commentary on Brahma Sutra. In addition, Sri Sankara followed the sub-commentary of Sundarapandya.  It is said; the doctrine   elaborated by Sri Sankara in his Adhyasa Bashya stemmed out of the germ ideas put forth by Upavarsha and Sundarapandya ( among others ) . It is not surprising that Sri Sankara held both the teachers in such high regard.

Sri Sankara regards Upavarsha a forerunner of his own tradition (sampradaya). He displays enormous reverence towards Upavarsha; and, addresses him as Bhagavan and Sampradaya vit , the upholder of the right tradition, just in the manner he addresses the Great Badarayana.  Sri Sankara addressed Jaimini, Sabara and other Mimasakas only as teachers (Acharya). 

Sundarapandya in his Varttika on Upavarsha’s Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti, mentions the six means of knowledge (cognition) advocated by Upavarsha. These are, briefly: Pratyaksha (immediate); Anumana (inference) ; Sabda (verbal or textual-testimony); Upamana (analogy);  Artha-patti (presumption); and,  Abhava  (non- apprehension).  He remarks that the Vrittika-kara   (Upavarsha) believes that these six modes of acquiring knowledge – Pramana – are valid only until the Self is ascertained. 

But, once the subject-object differentiation is erased, they no longer matter. He therefore makes a distinction between relative knowledge (sesha-jnana) and absolute knowledge (a-sesha-jnana). Upavarsha, he says, believes that absolute knowledge is attainable through Adyaropa or Apavada (adyaropa-apavada-ubhayam nishprapancham prapanchate). Sundarapandya explains; the attribute-less Brahman can be described by the method of superimposition followed by its withdrawal. The Absolute knowledge, however, is neither the process of superimposition nor is it the negation.  Incidentally, Sundarapandya is also believed to have contemplated on the concept of Maya and on the pristine nature of Brahman without Maya.

[The Adhyaropa-Apavada method of logic pioneered by Upavarsha consists in initially assuming a position and later withdrawing that assumption, after a discussion. ]

Apart from delineating the six means of knowledge that were adopted by the later Advaita Schools, Upavarsha is believed to have initiated a discussion on self-validation (svathah pramanya) that became a part of the Vedanta terminology. Svatah pramana: true knowledge is valid by itself; not made valid or invalid by external conditions (sva-karya-karane svatah pramanyam jnanasya).

 [As a general rule ,  knowledge (except memory) is taken to be valid on its own strength , unless invalidated by contrary knowledge. (memory is not considered valid knowledge as it is dependent on previous cognition or impressions which might get faded or distorted ; and , so is the dream.)]

There is a view that Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa were initially two independent treaties authored by Jaimini and Badarayana respectively; and, were later put together with suitable emendations by someone described as Vyasa – “the arranger”.  And, Upavarsha the Vrttikara commented upon the text in that combined form.  

Sri Sankara refers to a discussion held by Upavarsha on the nature of Self in Brahma Sutra (3.3.53). And, the same discussion appears in the commentary on Mimamsa-Sutra(1.1.5). Further Sri Sankara mentions:  ‘ Bhagavan Upavarsha has written a Vrtti on Purva Mimamsa. And, in that, he is referring to his another Vrtti on Saririka Mimamsa  (Brahma Sutra) ’.

 Ata Eva Bhagavata Upavarshena Prathame Tantre I Atma-stitv-abhidhana-prasaktau Sarirake Vakshyamaha ityuddharaha Krutaha II (3.3.53)

This suggests that Upavarsha may have commented  on both Purva and Uttara Mimamsa.

Sri Sankara whenever he refers to Upavarsha treats him with great respect and quotes his views in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya (eka ātmanaḥ śarīre bhāvāt – 3.3.53) as being authoritative. And the latter Sub-commentators of Advaita School, Anandajnana and Govindananda, recognize  Upavarsha as the Vrttikara.

Sri Sankara, in his commentary on Brahma sutra, adopted a particular way of presentation. On each subject (vishaya), he first gives one interpretation and then follows it up by the other interpretation. It is explained; the first one is given as the opposing views (purva-paksha) of ‘others’ (apare); and, it is meant to be rejected. But, Sri Sankara does not quote the opposing views; he merely sums up, raises them as the views of ‘others’, and finally dismisses them. Sri Sankara’s own views are presented in the later set of interpretation.

The later scholars, Anandajnana and Govindananda, explain that the ‘others’ referred by Sri Sankara, actually, stands for the Vrttikara Bodhayana. The Advaita School, thus, believes that Upavarsha and Bodhayana are two different persons.  And, the other dimesion of the  debate is  whether the terms  ‘others ‘ or ‘some’ truly refer to Bodhayana . That debate  is still not concluded.

Similarly , Sabarasvamin a noted Mimasaka in his bhashya (Sabara bhashya) on the fifth sutra of Mimamsa sutra of Jaimini refers to a Vrttikara prior to his (Sabara’s) time, without, of course, mentioning his name. In the Bhashya on the same sutra (1.1.5), Sabarasvamin also refers to Upavarsha by name and with the epithet ‘Bhagavan’  (gakāraukāra visarjanīyā iti bhagavān upavarṭaḥ ). As regards the other Vrttikara, it is not clear who that Vrittikara was. But, he, in any case , was not Upavarsha. 

[An unfortunate feature of the traditional texts is that they do not mention the names of the old teachers-commentators whose opinions are being quoted. Such practice might have been an idiom of a well-understood literary etiquette. But, it has led to needless debates and speculations.  Very often, it is left to a commentator who comes perhaps a century or more later to tell us that (let’s say) Sri Sankara actually meant such-and–such commentator when he said ‘some one ‘or ‘others’. Similar is the position with regard to those commentators that are referred to as ‘Vrttikara ‘ or ‘Vakyakara’ without mentioning their names .  There is therefore always an element of scepticism associated with such sub-commentaries. ]

Bodhayana, it is said, laid equal importance of Jnana and Karma Kandas; as   the two together constituted the doctrinal system (Shastraikatva).   He held the view that directly after completing the rituals one should take up the investigation into Brahman, which is the study of Vedanta. His position was coined by the later Vedanta Schools as jnana-karma-samucchaya-vada, the doctrine that synthesises jnana and karma. Sri Sankara who did not accord much significance to rituals, naturally, tended to differ from Bodhayana. 

Sri Sankara’s basic position was that the two sections are addressed to different class of persons. Karma-kanda consists injunctions to act in order to achieve certain results. But, liberation is not a product or a thing to be achieved. Jnana-kanda is about Brahman that already exists; it pertains to the ultimate purpose which is true knowledge of Self, and it is addressed to one who is intent on liberation.   Each section of Veda is valid in its own sphere; but, the two sections cannot logically be bound together.

There is  an alternate view that Upavarsha was a successor to Bodhayana. It is said that   Bodhayana wrote a Bhashya titled ‘Krtakoti’ on the Brahma Sutra. Fearing that the great length of the commentary would cause it be cast into oblivion, Upavarsha somewhat abridged it. And later, it is believed, Devasvamin further abridged Upavarsha’s abridged version.

But, there is also a belief that the names Upavarsha and Bodhayana refer to one and the same person ; and , Bodhayana might have been the linage, Gotra name, of Upavarsha. Sri Vedanta Deshika supported the view in his Tattvatika

  (Vrttikarasya  bhodhayanasiva  hi Upavarsa iti syan nama  ) .

This School beleives that  Bodhayana’s theory of assigning equal importance to Karma andJnana Kandas was adopted by Yadavaprakasha, Sri Ramanuja’s teacher. Bodhayana, it is said, had recognized  that Jnana and Karma Kandas  together constitute the doctrinal system (Shastraikatva). 

Sri Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashya quotes the views of the Vrttikara Bodhayana seven times. In the opening verse of Sri Bhashya, Sri Ramanuja says: ‘The previous masters have abridged the detailed commentary on Brahma sutra which had been composed by Bhagavad Bodhayana. The words of the sutra will be explained in accordance with their views. “(Bhagavad Bhodayana kritam vistirnam Brahma-sutra – vrttim purvacharyah samskipuh I tan-mata-anusarena sutraksarani vyakhyasyante II)  

Sadly, Bodhayana’s vrtti is no longer extant.


Sri Sankara indicates that Upavarsha’s commentary on Brahma Sutra was called Sariraka –mimamsa – vritti (but that work is now lost). Sri Sankara perhaps adopted the term Sarirakafrom Upavarsha; and, titled his own Bhashya on Brahma Sutra as Sariraka –mimamsa – Bhashya.

Upavarsha is believed to have held the view that Brahman is the source, the ground and the goal of all universes. Sri Sankara and Padmapada expanded on this view. Upavarsha is quoted as explaining the term ‘Brahma-jignasa’ as Brhmane jignasa, meaning the enquiry for Brahman. Sri Sankara and others remark that when Vrittikara (Upavarsha) says that the enquiry is for Brahman, he is right…, for, knowledge of Brahman is indeed the fruit of this enquiry.

Padmapada says that Upavarsha explained the word ‘atha’  as referring to that ‘ after the enquiry into the antecedent condition’, the enquiry into Brahman  follows ( Ref : Panchapadika ). 

It is said; Upavarsha developed a theory on Atman (Atma-vada).  He emphasized that the postulation of “self” as distinct from body and the mental process was rather inevitable. He argued that   the self cannot in any manner be revealed to another person; but, it cannot be denied by oneself either. It is affirmed by introspection, but that process cannot itself be regarded as self.

As for the proof of the existence of Atman, Upavarsha holds the view that Atman is known by perception as it is the object of ‘I’.

A verse quoted in Nyayamanjari of Jayanta of the Nyaya School (dated around ninth century) cites the Atman-theory of ‘the followers of Upavarsha’ (Aupavarsha): ‘they understand the Atman to be directly perceptible (pratyaksha) ;  For Atman can be known by ‘I’ consciousness.

 [Tatra pratyaksham atmanam Aupavarsha prapedire I aham-pratyaya-gamyatvat svayuthya api kechana II]

The argument seems to be that the existence of Atman need not be proved by reasoning or verbal arguments. It is in each one’s own experience. Self is the consciousness of being. This was also the faith of the later Mimamsa school of Kumarila Bhatta.

Sri Sankara too adopted the proposition of Upavarsha. Sri Sankara explained: “For all men are conscious that the Atman (self) exists. No one ever thinks ‘I do not exist’ “. At another place (BS : 1.1.1), he says that the inner-self (pratyagatma) is the object of “I consciousness’ (asmat-pratyaya-vishaya); and, that it is directly perceptible (aparoksha).

Sri Sankara expanded further on the Atman-theory of Upavarsha, and extended it to the Supreme Self, transcending the individual.


Some people   call Upavarsha the Fred Hoyle of ancient India  , in the sense that both rejected the Big Bang theory. Upavarsha rejected the Sphota-vada , which in essence said that every act of creation and every sound that issues forth in the universe is the duplication of the initial Big Bang. When we utter a sound or word the Big Bang is duplicating itself in our mind.

Bhartrihari (c. 450-510 CE?) expanding on an ancient idea is said to have propounded Sphota-vada In his famous work the Vakyapadiya.

The term ‘sphota’ does not easily translate into English, as it usually happens.  The Sphota is derived from the root ‘sphut’ which means ‘to burst’, but it also describes what ’is revealed’ or  ‘is made explicit’. Sphota can also refer to the abstract or conceptual form of an audible word. Sphota is somewhat similar to the Ancient Greek concept of logos or Word.

Sphota is also interpreted to mean that from which the meaning bursts forth, shines forth etc. To put it in another way, that which expresses a meaning; or the process of expressing a meaning through a word is called sphota.

Bhartrihari deals with Sphota at two levels : one on the metaphysical plane and the other on the empirical plane. The theory is that Brahman first manifested itself as Sound and then as form . The Sphota, Sabda-brahman , the manifester as Logos or Word, is the power through which the Lord manifests in  the universe. Liberation is achieved when one attains unity with that ‘supreme word principle’. Within this theory, consciousness and thought are intertwined; and Grammar becomes a path to liberation. Sphota-vada is a monistic philosophy based on Sanskrit grammar. (Swami Vivekananda’s explanation).

At the empirical level, Bhartrihari is concerned with the process of communicating meaning. He deals with the word and the sound distinctions; the word meaning; the unitary nature of the whole sentence; the word object connection; and the levels of speech, etc. His focus is on cognition and language.

If the letters  float away and disappear the instant we utter them and if each sound is replaced by another in quick succession, then one can hardly perceive the word  or a sentence as a whole. And the question that comes up is- then , how does one grasp the meaning of a word or of a sentence?

Bhartrihari held the view that the sentence is not a collection of words or an ordered series of words . A sentence-sphota is the primary unit of meaning. A sentence is a sequence_ less, part_ less whole that gets expressed or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. A word or sentence is grasped as a unity by  intuition (pratibha). According to Bhartrhari, sphota is an auditory image of word. It is indivisible and without inner-sequence.

 Bhartrihari explains that initially the word exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity but is manifested as a sequence of different sounds, giving raise to the appearance of differentiation. Bhartrhari states: “All difference presupposes a unity”;  and where there is a duality there is an identity pervading it. Otherwise one cannot be related to the other or each would constitute a world by itself.

For Bhartrhari, Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical with its meaning. Language is not the vehicle of meaning or of thought. Thought anchors language and  the language anchors thought. In this way , there are no essential differences between a linguistic unit and its meaning or the thought it conveys. Sphota refers to the” non-differentiated language principle”. This gave raise to  the theory of “word monism“.

However, Upavarsha rejected the Sphota-Vada. He in turn came up with his theory of  Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes -varnas) alone are real constituents of a word. He said sounds are only Varnas and there is no need for a sphota.

Sri Sankara refers to Upavarsha as the originator of Varna-vada, which contrasted with Spotavada of Bhartrhari. According to Varna- vada, the Varna-s, phoneme (speech sounds) , alone are real constituents of the word; and there is nothing else in the word apart from Varna-s.

Sri Sankara remarks (BS: 1.3.28): Bhagavad Upavarsha says ‘But, the words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varna). He then follows up with a debate on whether the words are letter-sounds of this kind or whether they are Sphota. 

Sri Sankara supported Varna vada as against Spotavada (Sankara Bashya on Brahma Sutra: 1.3.28) ; and followed Upavarsha . He did not approve the concept of Sphota-vada; and, said the meaning of a word can be known from its constituent letters, sounds  and the context. But, Sri Sankara, the scholars believe, was not putting forth an original argument, but was  merely condensing the previous refutations of the Sphota theory.

The other Acharyas and commentators too toed a similar line and did not approve the Sphota theory.Vacaspati Mishra who commented on Sri Sankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bhashya, too rejected the Sphota  theory . He came up with  his own theory of Abhihitanvaya-vadaand said the understanding of the meaning of a whole sentence is reached by inferring to it, in a separate act of lakshana or implication, from the individual meanings of the constituent words.


Upavarsha, whoever he might have been, was indeed an intellectual giant of his times. He was a worthy successor to the remarkable sage-scholars such as Badarayana and Jaimini. His contribution to the development of Indian thought is enormous.

Many however feel that by dismissing off-hand the Sphota theory he derailed the growth of rational thinking within the Indian philosophy.

[Please read the companion post About Upavarsha

 at ]

 [For more on Bhartrhari  and the Sphota  theory , please visit ]

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Indian Philosophy


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