Mayavada, The theory of Illusion or Covered Atheism

Sripada Shankaracharya presented his interpretation of the shastras through commentaries on the prasthana trayas and various treatises such as Atma bodha, Atma Shatkam, Upadesha Sahasri and Viveka Chudamani. He was very anxious to establish his philosophy of Kevaladvaita using the statements of the shastras, whose conclusions are fully in contrast to his assumptions. Hence, Shankara resorted to imagining indirect and speculative meanings of the Vedic literatures, starting from the mahavakyas or aphorisms of the Vedanta sutras. This line of logic and argument is also known as Vivartavada or Gaunavada. Hence, his word jugglery is very complex and difficult to appreciate for an unbiased and sincere inquirer.

The Atma Bodha, while correctly explaining the anti-material nature of the self, completely misdirects the reader to believe that he is one with and same as God. The following verses from the Atma Bodha are few examples of Shankara’s imagined conclusions of the nature of the spirit soul.

nishidhya nikhilopaadheen neti neteeti vakyatah
vidyadaikyam mahaavaakyaih jeevatma paramaatmanoh.

nitya suddha vimuktaikam akhanda anandam advayam
satyam jnanam anantam yatparam brahma aham eva tat

sthaanau purushavat bhraantyaa krutaa brahmani jeevataa
jeevasya taathvike roope tasmin drushte nivartate.

atma eva idam jagat sarvam atmano anyat na vidyate
mrudo yadvat ghataadeeni swatmaanam sarvam eekshyate

According to these explanations, the individual soul (jivatma) and the Supreme soul (Paramatma) are one and the same. This truth has to be realized by negating the material conditionings through the help of the statements “It is not this” “It is not this” (neti neti). The individual soul is non-different from the eternally pure and blissful Supreme Brahman which is infinite, indivisible and non-dual. This alone is the Truth. Due to illusion only, the Supreme soul (Brahman) appears to be an individual soul (jiva) just as a tree appears to be a man. When this illusion is removed, the true nature of the jiva as Brahman itself is revealed. This entire universe is pervaded by Brahman. There is nothing else existing other than Brahman. Just as pots, jars and other clay articles are nothing but the same earth of which they are made of, so also the individual jivas (jivatma) are same as the supreme Brahman (Paramatma). There is no distinction between them.

Similarly, in Upadesa Sahasri (A Thousand teachings), which is a dialogue between a teacher and a disciple, Shankaracharya teaches the same interpretations. He rightly begins the work by saying that a teacher is one who will first of all instruct the disciple, who is desirous of obtaining knowledge, by introducing him to the Vedic texts (vidyopayogarthim purvam upadishet).

However, he explains the Vedic texts in his own manner as follows:

In the beginning, only It (Brahman) or the Self was existing as one without a second (sadeva somyedam agra asit ekameva advitiyam) and everything was but one Self (atma va idameka evagra asit). All the manifestations are but the Self alone (atmaivedam sarvam) and the realized see nothing else but this Brahman (yatra nanyat pashyati). Everything is verily Brahman (sarvam khalvidam brahma) and the purpose of Vedic instructions is to establish the oneness of the Self with Brahman.   

Further, he defines Brahman as ‘anaditvat nirgunatvat’ – that which is without a beginning and which has no qualities or attributes. He says that the Supreme Brahman does not have a name or form but it assumed the name and form of the ether as it was manifested from the Brahman (te nama rupe avyakrte sati vyakriyamane tasmad etasmad atmana akasa namakrti samvrtte).

Theorising on the process of creation and denying the reality of the enormous cosmic manifestation that confronts him, Sri Shankaracharya further speculates:

That ether arose out of the Supreme self just like the dirt called foam arises out of clear water (tat ca akaashakhyam bhutam anena prakarena paramatmanah sambhutam prasannadiva salilat malameva phenam). The foam is neither water, nor different from water (na salilam na salilat atyanta bhinnam phenam) for it is never seen separated from water (salila vyatirekena adarshanat). But, water is pure and different from the foam – which is of the nature of dirt (salilam tu swachham anyat phenan mala rupat). Similarly, the Supreme Self is pure and is different from the names and forms which are like foam (evam paramatma nama rupabhyam anyah phena sthaniyabhyam shuddhah prasannah tad vilakshanah). Denying the identity of a singular God, the infallible Supreme Person, who is separate from and yet the cause of His innumerable expansions called the jivas, Shankaracharya proposes to his students that:  Ultimately, you are the Supreme Brahman who is not subject to transmigration. But you wrongly think that you are liable to transmigration. This is ignorance (tvam paramatmanam santam asamsarinam samsaryaham asmi iti viparitam pratipadhyase… iyam avidya).

One of the analogies repeatedly given by Shankaracharya and his followers to explain his theory of oneness and illusion is that of a rope and a snake. For a traveler, a rope lying on his path appears to be a snake in darkness. But when light is flashed, he realizes that it is after all a rope. So long the traveler was in darkness the snake was real for him. This was his illusion. Similarly, this entire world is just an illusion created by the mind. Once the illusion is cleared by knowledge, one sees only Brahman everywhere and he himself also is Brahman – Aham Brahmasmi.

In this way, Shankaracharya propounded the theory that only Brahman is the Truth and everything that is manifested is simply illusion. Brahman does not possess name, attributes or form. It assumes names and forms due to contamination by the material nature which is just like impure foam in pure water. Thus the form of the Absolute Truth is also an illusion or a product of maya. And, Brahman (whether defined as jiva or Paramatma) is also prone to illusion. When one understands these truths through knowledge, he becomes liberated and once again realises the ‘fact’ that he is one with Brahman. In other words, the jiva understands that he is God.  Of course, it is very offensive to deny the most beautiful and enchanting form of God and His unlimited names, qualities and attributes that are sung and glorified by the seers of Truth.  It is also condemnable to consider the tiny jiva, who is prone to illusion and ignorance as one with God. This Supreme Person is the Lord and Master of maya, the illusory energy and being eternally pure, He is transcendental to the material modes and always unaffected by them.

Shankaracharya offers to sum up his philosophy in the following words:  In half of a sloka, I state what has been stated by millions of texts; that is, Brahman alone is real and this material world is false or illusion, and the jiva is non-different from Brahman (slokardhena pravakshyami yad-uktam granthakotibhih, brahma satyam jagan-mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah).

However, the Vaishnava Acharyas have concluded that people who agree to this theory of Mayavada are themselves in maya. And that the faulty conclusions are concoctions of Mayavada. They can be accepted only by those who are ensnared by the illusory energy and yet foolishly claim that they are God.  

One can also find that Shankaracharya, a staunch impersonalist, recommended panchopasana or the worship of five forms namely the forms of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga, Lord Ganesha and the Sun God (Surya). The argument to justify this practice is that it is not possible for a person who has been accustomed to forms since time immemorial to meditate on a formless Brahman. Shankara is therefore supposed to have approved that one could imagine any of these five forms for worship. Since God does not have any form, one can imagine any form and meditate to ultimately attain the supreme destination of impersonal oneness. This means that the ‘impersonal’ God can be imagined to have a material form. Hence, Bhakti or unalloyed devotional service to the Supreme Lord is also within the three material modes or karma kanda. Therefore, Shankaracharya’s philosophy can be called as Mayavada as he proclaims that God and His transcendental form is also a product of maya or ignorance and spiritual activities are in the material modes.

Thus, Shankaracharya misrepresented the sastras and explained them in an indirect way to suit his interpretations. This set a dangerous precedent encouraging several self-proclaimed philosophers to propagate their own speculative theories which were not in conjunction with Vedic conclusions. These unscrupulous people declare that one can understand the Vedic scriptures in any way he likes – ‘yatha matha tatha patha’.  The meanings of the sastras have been concocted and distorted by these false gurus to mislead the populace.

Hence, Vaishnava Acharyas consider Shankaracharya’s philosophy to be even more dangerous than atheistic Buddhism because it is disguised as Vedanta or theistic philosophy and has paved the way for many other bogus philosophies to be propagated. Srila Prabhupada also strongly denounces such unscrupulous men who have created havoc in the Vedic culture.  

The fact that Shankaracharya’s philosophy is a misrepresentation of Vedic conclusions has been proved beyond doubt by several Acharyas. In order to dismantle the fallacy of Shankaracharya’s philosophy and to establish the real meaning of the Vedas, they have preached extensively, wrote Vaishnava commentaries on the Prasthanatraya and composed several other treatises.

To counter the Sharirika bhasya, Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Vedanta sutras, all bona fide sampradayas have commentaries to clearly explain the right meanings. Srila Prabhupada names these commentaries or bhasyas of each Vaishnava sampradaya as follows:  “The commentary by Śrīla Rāmānujācārya, known as Śrī-bhāṣya, establishes the viśiṣṭādvaita-vāda philosophy. Similarly, in the Brahma-sampradāya, Madhvācārya’s Pūrṇaprajña-bhāṣya establishes śuddha-dvaita-vāda. In the Kumāra-sampradāya, or Nimbārka-sampradāya, Śrī Nimbārka establishes the philosophy of dvaitādvaita-vāda in the Pārijāta-saurabha-bhāṣya. And in the Viṣṇu-svāmi-sampradāya, or Rudra-sampradāya, which comes from Lord Śiva, Viṣṇu Svāmī has written a commentary called Sarvajñabhāṣya, which establishes śuddhādvaita-vāda. Śrīla Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa's Govinda-bhāṣya is the main commentary in the line of Lord Caitanya, known as the Mādhva-Gauḍīya-sampradāya.” These commentaries establish the philosophy that the Lord is the Supreme Master and all living entities are His eternal servants. The only way to achieve liberation from the material entanglement is through Bhakti or loving devotional service to the Lord.

Some important treatises written by the Vaishnava Acharyas that refute the fallacious Mayavada are listed below:

Srila Madhvacharya’s Dasha Prakarana which includes the Khandana-trayas (Upadhi Khandana, Prapancha-mithyatva-anumana Khandana & Mayavada Khandana), and Vishnutattva Vinirnaya. His Tatva Muktavali, also known as Mayavada Sata Dushani is another important contribution. The Sattarkadipavali by Sri Padmanabha Tirtha and Tattva Prakshika by Sri Jayatirtha are also prominent. The names of these Acharyas are listed 6th and 10th respectively in the disciplic succession given by Srila Prabhupada in Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. Srila Vadiraja Tirtha’s refutation called Nyaya Ratnavali has created interest amongst scholars and theologians, even from the West.

The Sri sampradaya, headed by Srila Ramanujacharya has also strongly refuted the Mayavada philosophy through various commentaries. Sri Vedanta Desikar, also known as Kavitarkika Kesari or the Lion among poets, composed his own Mayavada Satadushani. In fact, Shankara’s philosophy was challenged even before the advent of Sri Ramanuja by his predecessor and teacher Sri Yamunacharya through Mayavada Khandana. Similarly, all the Vaishnava sampradayas have effectively defeated Mayavada and established the true meanings and imports of the Vedic literature.   

All the Acharyas of our Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya beginning from Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu have extensively refuted the Mayavada philosophy. Srila Jiva Goswami, Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Srila Baladeva Vidyabhushana Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, amongst other great personalities in our parampara, have pointed out the various faults of Mayavada and have firmly established the Vaishnava conclusions. Srila Prabhupada has presented the most comprehensive and effective refutations of Mayavada in the recent times.   

In the next articles, we will study the strong logic and philosophical arguments put forth by these Vaishnava Acharyas to refute the Mayavada philosophy.

<<Previous                                                                                                Next>>