The book deals with early Vedanta, that is, a pre—Sankara Vedanta, which was characterized by a deeply ingrained belief in the power of the word, when the higher reality was often approached through painstaking grammatical studies. It presented an exquisite analysis of consciousness and, at the same time, often relied on esoteric meditation practice verging on Tantrism. It was powerfully influenced by Buddhism, and yet, had an equally powerful sense of being rooted in Brahmanical orthodoxy. Judging from these different views, early Vedanta was nothing but a tangled mess of poorly disguised contradictions. Of course, in just a few centuries, the gap dividing these early Vedanta teachings from Sankara’s mature Vedanta was bridged; roughly moulded joints and connections were smoothed down, harsh contrasts were resolved within the all- embracing fold of Advaita Vedanta.
Yet one cannot totally escape the feeling that in every synthesis, in every harmony, however perfect it might be, something is missing. Every time philosophers try to bring together or connect diverse trends of thought, something is sacrificed, often the more colourful and intricate details, more exquisite embellishments. And it is often the case that those very details, presumed to be purely ornamental and superfluous, could have given birth to new ideas and theoretical notions.
Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta is undoubtedly an impressive enough philosophy, an elaborate pyramid of escalating concepts and images. Let us take a look at some of the foundational elements that ultimately came to be discarded—perhaps they were necessary and indispensable only for the initial stages of its construction. We naturally want to take a closer look at Sankara’s predecessors, at his forerunners who were trying to propound their own ideas about God, the creation of the universe, or the nature of the human soul.
This book deals mainly with the ideas and teaching of Gaudapada, the teacher of Sankara’s master, Govinda, and with the ideas of the grammarian and philosopher, Bhartrhari. In my view, these two thinkers should be regarded as predecessors of certain schools of non-dualistic Kashmir Saivism, which proved to be quite theistical in their essence, rather than immediate forerunners of Sankara‘s Vedanta.
Generally speaking, the concepts of early Vedantins became natural bridges or links which connected the Advaita system to other religious and philosophical systems. It is well known, for instance, that Mandanamisra was deeply attracted to Mimamsa point of view. At first glance, Gaudapada presents a phenomenal example of a mediation between orthodox Vedanta and "heretical" notions of Buddhism. Meanwhile, Bhartrhari, probably the most interesting and original philosopher of the whole pre-Sankara orthodox tradition, succeeded in using some of the Buddhist ideas, as well as in supplying a necessary link between the emerging Advaita Vedanta and a venerable grammar tradition of ancient India. Finally, all of these early Vedantins were much more proficient than their relatively moderate successor in blending philosophical concepts with the religious, mystical, and ritualistic side of their respective teachings. Again, Bhartrhari seems to provide the most compelling example of that blending, since his theoretical tastes and prophetic revelations have found themselves a direct continuation within the fold of various mystical and Tantric schools of non-dualist Kashmir Saivism.
But however colourful and interesting these ritualistic traits might have been in their own right, it was nevertheless absolutely necessary to anchor the recurrent mythological and psychological images of early Vedanta in a solid ontological foundation; it was important to show their compelling and indispensable character, as well as to determine a possible direction of their eventual development. In fact, when analyzing the notions and concepts of any religious and philosophical school, one should always try to look for ontological implications, even if the latter did not seem to be entirely transparent to the adepts themselves. And that inevitably calls for certain interpretations, certain additional suggestions that might contribute towards revealing the inner logical structure of the system in question.
When looking at Gaudapada’s system, it is immediately clear that instead of the two levels of reality and consciousness singled out by Sankara (that is, vyavaharika-vidya, or "the knowledge of empirical practice," and paramarthika-vidya, or ‘the higher knowledge"), instead of dealing with an opposition between the pure atman and the world, we are confronted with a fourfold structure of the universe. And although it was Gaudapada who introduced the notion of maya, or “cosmic illusion,” into the teaching of Vedanta, one cannot escape the impression that his vision of the world was based not so much upon the concept of pure reality, devoid of any attributes and characteristics, as on something fuller, more multi-dimensional, and dynamic. In a lot of present-day Indological studies, Gaudapada is presented as a thinker who was mainly engaged in establishing possible correlations between, respectively, the - "microcosm" of a human soul in its manifold appearances, and the "macrocosm" of universal ontological and even cosmological structures. And, according to many Indologists, it was precisely this notion that prevented him from reaching the higher stages of Advaita thought, for it contaminated his pure onto- logical outlook with traces of psychological and overt mythological traits. That is why some argue that even though Gaudapada became the first Vedantin to suggest an opposition between the higher reality of Brahman and a relative, limited reality of an illusory dream, he still could not successfully integrate the concept of pure consciousness, which later came to form the core of Sankara’s "mature" Advaita.
In this work I approach Gaudapada’s teachings with a slightly different attitude. In my opinion, a shift in the angle of consideration, a new line of inquiry might reveal more coherent explanations for concepts and notions that would otherwise bewilder an unbiased reader. I am suggesting that the key to some of Gaudapada’s more extravagant affirmations concerning the nature of reality is most likely to be found in his approach to the universal dynamic process—the process which ultimately leads both to the emergence of the world and to the fourfold structuring of consciousness.
It is well known that in Sankara’s Advaita the higher Brahman is pure and devoid of form (arupa), while all of its temporary "attributes," "qualities," and "forms" are merely passing and accidental (agantuka). They are nothing more than superficial characteristics superimposed on pure consciousness, due either to our limited means of logical reasoning, or to our disturbed and obscured sensibility. Meanwhile, for another early Vedantin, Bhartrhari, Brahman is posited as Speech (vak), the Word (sabda); Brahman has a definite outline, he looms as a peculiar emerging shape. Once can also say that within the boundaries of our universe this entity is represented by the Vedas. A Vedic text can and should be essentially regarded as Brahman himself—as Brahman who is turning around to face or address us. Certainly, for both Gaudapada and Bhartrhari, Brahman must always remain one and the same. According to the orthodox Indian tradition, Brahman is a totally uniform, homogenous and unchanging entity, in which no differentiation can ever be discerned. However, from the point of view of the early Vedantins, the "seeds" (bija) of the forthcoming division of this entity are already present within this unity. But they are so deeply "folded in," so securely hidden in their latent existence, that one can only sense their presence owing to the inherent tension that eventually brings them forth. In this respect, Bhartrhari no longer depicts Brahman as the pure, quiet light of consciousness, but rather as a tightly compressed spring, which, by its nature and inherent tension, will unfold or straighten up.
Brahman is one and the same, but, according to the early Vedantins, when this compressed spring is finally released, the world—which is created or manifested by Brahman—becomes manifold and diverse. Brahman is one and the same, but we, essentially finite and limited creatures, contained within that perceptible universe, we are able to conceive of it only through approximations, interpretations, and mental constructions (vikalpa). The most condensed form of Brahman for both Gaudapada and Bhartrhari is the sacred syllable Om (pranava). Vedic texts undoubtedly provide us with a true image, a true reflection of Brahman, but the core and the initial “seed" (bija) of the Veda, its true form, as well as its least deceptive embodiment, is represented in this world by the continuous pulsation (spanda) of the sacred mantra.
The teachings of Bhartrhari are also considered from a different viewpoint and largely re-interpreted through the course of this book. The aim of this approach was to link Bhartrhari with the tradition of non-dualist Kashmir Saivism in a more natural and convincing way. It certainly became increasingly c1ear—at least to me, while I was writing this book—how within the notion of Brahman as pure consciousness one begins to discern, more and more vividly, the shaping up of a new image; how through all the entanglements of complex philosophical definitions one can see the emerging face of a personified God. The systems of Bhartrhari and Gaudapada provided the Vedanta philosophical system with a new element that could eventually lead an adept (sadhaka) to the concept of God endowed with a name, and not just a nameless and pure Brahman. These schools succeeded in providing an ontological ground for the notion of a dynamic, active, and potent God—the God who creates this world in a loosing forth of energy, through his own artistic and poetic effort.
While I agree with some authors, who (like André Padoux) argue that the process of "Brahmanization" or "Vedantization" of Kashmir Saivism, can be traced from the beginning of the ninth century A.D.,' it is also quite appropriate to assume that even earlier than that (beginning in the fifth- sixth century) one could witness a complementary process going on in the opposite direction, when religious paradigms were directly influencing philosophical constructions. To my mind, both Gaudapada and Bhartrhari clearly demonstrate the possibilities of Tantric developments within the scope of Vedanta religious philosophy. I believe that my approach to early Vedanta enabled me to find more plausible solutions for some of the technical and specific problems inherent in these teachings: for example, it provided useful keys for explaining Bhartrhari’s attitude towards Vedic injunctions (vidhi), as well as for determining their role in his system.
Finally, I think that the teaching of Bhartrhari definitely differs and perhaps deliberately steers away from the Neoplatonic ontology and cosmology peculiar to the religious and philosophical systems of Kashmir Saivism. For Abhinavagupta, as well as for other non—dualist Kashmir Saivites, the initial light of creation inevitably splits up and divides when it begins its downward journey; and, at the same time, it becomes more dense, assuming increasingly less and less transparent manifestations within the hierarchy of the created universe. In contrast, Bhartrhari is still more inclined to oscillate between the notions of "pure," qualityless Brahman (nirguna brahma) and Brahman endowed with qualities and - powers (saguna brahma). Bhartrhari avoids constructing endless cosmological and psychological hierarchies (a process that, theoretically speaking, can be carried on ad infinitum); he prefers to reason on the level of energies. Curiously enough, the most striking similarities were probably those that linked the ontological notions of Bhartrhari with the corresponding tenets of the Kashmir Saivite theory of aesthetics. In this respect, one is first and foremost reminded of the concept of "suggested meaning" (dhvani) and that of the aesthetical pleasure, or "tasting" (rasa), propounded by Abhinavagupta.
And this similarity, on the whole, brings us within reach of a somewhat different theistic tradition. Strange as it might sound, the closest counterparts for the early Vedanta ideas can be found in the teaching of medieval Byzantine Hesychasts, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Palamas, and, possibly, in the concepts of the Russian Orthodox imyaslaviye system of Pavel Florensky and Alexei Losev. The comparison might seem a bit far-fetched, even though there are distinct parallels between Kashmir Saivism and Neoplatonic teachings. In fact, when I suggested in this book that some notions of Christian theology might remind us of ideas present in early Vedanta, I merely ventured to touch on the extreme points where the two systems seemed to resemble each other. I never held that there was a point where they actually coincided; in my opinion, there is no way to obliterate the differences or bridge the tremendous gap between Christianity and Indian thought. However, sometimes it is worthwhile to follow the parallel paths taken by certain ideas as they developed in different systems. And one might well recall that such a keen and discerning scholar as Paul Hacker went to great lengths trying to establish correspondences between Sarikara‘s Advaita and Neoplatonism even though the grounds for this analogy were certainly less convincing than a possibility of a common reference point between non-dualist Saivite teachings and some corresponding Neoplatonic insights and ideas. In any case, the concept of "energy,” derived from a medieval Christian tradition, proved useful for a new outlook on early Vedanta, as well as for a novel interpretation of Abhinavagupta‘s aesthetic theory.
Back of the Book
This book deals with one of the most interesting periods in the development of Indian religious and philosophical traditions. Starting with the teaching of the protovedantist philosopher Gaudapada, and then analyzing the ideas of his famous contemporary, the grammarian Bhartrhari, the author suggests an entirely new approach to the whole history of Vedanta.
Gaudapada and Bhartrhari are presented as founders of an independent trend within Indian orthodox philosophy, a trend that culminates later in the theistic tenets of Kashmir Shaivism. Isayeva shows that, in contrast to Sankara, early vedantist philosophers regarded the higher Brahman as a kind of continuous reverberation of a peculiar phonic energy that was ever producing the same constantly renewable structures and patterns of the universe. This idea found its continuation in the metaphysical and aesthetical concepts of Abhinavagupta, where the ultimate ontological reality is manifested through the rhythmical outbursts of God’s creative power.
“The relationship between Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Shankara has never been given the in-depth exploration that Isayeva offers. Her analysis demonstrates a major continuity of thought from Gaudapada through Bhartrhari to Abhinavagupta and Kashmir Shaivism, a line hinted at by others but never analyzed in depth.
“Reading this book led to several ‘aha’ moments for me, as hunches I have had for many years were given detailed analysis and confirmation. But my eyes were opened as well to a new way of seeing the development of Indian philosophy during the crucial period of 500-1000 A.D. The author’s bringing together of Gaudapada and Bhartrhari is a major step forward in scholarship.”
Natalia Isayeva- is Senior Researcher in the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. She is the author of Shankara and Indian Philosophy, also published by SUNY Press.
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend