I would like to write an essay on the topic of Avidya and Maya - primarily by examining some of Acharya Shankara's writings about Avyakta Maya Avidya etc in an attempt to examine the
Acharya's views - primarily because these relevant passages are of tremendous value to me, and perhaps to other seekers as aids in mananam.
First let us examine some passages from the Mundaka bhashya.
In the very introduction the Acharya in explaining the term Upanishad says "..or
so it is called so, since it completely weakens ot destroys avasaadayati the
ignorance." One can see that the Acharya here is talking about weakening and
gradually destroying a entity or seed ignorance - surely to "weaken" an absence
would make little sense.
Furthermore while glossing on "tapasa cheeyate.." the Acharya while describing
that there is a "fixed Order of creation i.e. that the Universe does so in the
this order of succession and not simultaneously like a handful of scattered
jujubes"..asserts thus - " From that Unmanifest was born Hiranyagarbha who is
common to all the beings in the Universe that are endued with a part of His
power of knowledge and action, who sprouts from that seed of all beings which is
constituted by ignorance, desire and action, and who identifies Himself with the
Later on in the same Upanishad, Shankara talks very explicitly about this
Unmanifest - 2.1.2
The text now proceed to speak of the Imperishable that is higher than the other
imperishable which is called the Unmanifest....and the nature of this Maya is
inferred from the fact of its being the limiting adjunct of Brahman that appears
to be the seed of name and form. And that other imperishable called the
Unmanifest that is inferred as the limiting adjunct of that Higher Impersihable
is itself higher than all the modifications, because by implication it is the
seed of all the effects and accessories.
The Acharya describes vividly the condition of ignorance in 3.1.7 - Where is
that Brahman perceived? In the cavity, called the intellect; for by the
enlightened It is perceived as hidden there; and yet, even though existing
there, It is not perceived by the ignorant because of Its being covered by
ignorance. Again- from the vyavahara of bondage/ignorance/knowledge/ liberation
- it is unmistakable that what is being alluded to is a root ignorance that is
veiling as it were the Supreme Self and this is in turn responsible for the
samsaric sorrow we experience. The verisame idea is reiterated for emphasis by
the Acharya in 3.2.3 - esah atma - this Self reveals Its own Supreme nature, Its
reality having been enveloped in ignorance.
We shall next examine some relevant verses from another of the Acharya's seminal
works the Upadesha Sahasri.In the previous series we examined the bhashya on the Mundaka Upanishad with a
view to ascertaining how Bhagwan Shankara elucidates the idea of avidya in his
Now we examine a very important text of the Acharya - the Upadesha Sahasri. The
Englis translation of Swami Jagadananda has been used in this essay.
Shankara issues a narrative to set-in place the context to the teaching.
A student approaches the Guru in the prescribed manner and asks "How can I be
liberated of this transmigratory existence? Is this my own nature or is it
Causal?" The teacher says to him "It is not your own nature, but is causal". The
student now poses a direct question - "What is the Cause?" to which the Guru
answers: The cause nimittam is avidya, Knowledge vidya brings it to an end tasya
nivartika. WHen Ignorance the Cause is removed - avidyayam nivrttaayaam tan
nimitta-abhavaat you will be liberated mokshyase janmamaranalakshanat.
Now Shankara has the student pose these questions - What is that Avidya? What is
The teachers says - You are the Supreme Self tvam ParamAtmanam but you wrongly
think vipareetam pratipadyase but mistake yourself to be samsari samsariaham
asmi iti - this is avidyA.
Here we see Shankara indicating initially to the student what is avidyA by its
effect - i.e. mutual superimposition of the Atma on the anatma and the anatma on
the atma - itaretara adhyasa. After all this is the very introduction to the
teaching - what the student knows at this stage is duality - ideas of Maya,
anirvachaneeya, etc are still alien to him. So at the very outset the teacher is
explaining to the student in terms he can readily understand that a. he is
limitless. b. he consideres himself to be limited c. this is because of avidya.
Further, Shankara characterizes this as the seed Ignorance that is responsible
for this adhyasa subsequently in the same text:
It is these wrong notions (viz. adhyasa) that are the causes of delusion vimoha
buddher grhaeva karanam. These notions, bereft of their cause grha-pyahetu( viz.
Avidya) come to an absolute end, like fire bererft of fuel.
Here we find the Acharya indicating an unmistakable sequence of cause and
effect. There is a Cause which gives rise to the wrong notions and these wrong
notions alone are the cause of the delusion of duality. When knowledge
extinguishes the root cause it renders the continuation of this wrong notion
And hence the Acharya again asserts:
How can one be born again who has known the oneness of the Self and Brahman and
is sure of the non-existence of the seed called Ignorance stated before?
There are multiple instances where-in the Acharya also talks about the
inscrutable power of Maya as the Causal potency behind creation, the Causal seed
that sprouts forth the variegated samsara, and talks about it interchangably
The Brahman that is immediate and direct, the innermost Self (ya atma
sarvantarah) ...is by virtue of Its inscrutable power the cause of the
manifestation of unmanifested name and form which abide in the Self through its
very presence, but are different from It, which are the SEED of the universe
(jagadbeeja), are describable neither as identical with It nor different from It
(anirvachaneeyayoh) and are cognized by It alone.
Here-in we find the Acharya precisely defining Maya as a.anirvachaneeya and
inscrutable b.the Seed c. Brahman's intrinsic power
Elsewhere we find:
Unperceived in deep sleep but perceived (in waking) by only those who are
ignorant, the entire universe is an outcome of Avidya and therefore unreal.
What is called Deep Sleep? Tamas or Ajnana is the seed of the waking and dream
states. It gets perfectly burnt by the fire of the Self knowledge and it no more
produces effects, like a burnt seed that does not germinate.
Here we find the very same seed that is responsible for the variegated duality
is being termed Avidya. And what is made clear is that self-knowledge alone
burns this seed avidya or root cause, so that it is rendered incapable of
Again we find the same idea being emphasized further in the Up Sah:
That one seed called Maya is evolved into three states which come one after
another again and again. The Self the substratum of Maya though only one and
immitable appears to be many like reflections of sun in water.
In this particular sentence, the substratum of avidya is unmistakably mentioned
as to be the Self alone. And the analogy of the One sun appearing as different
due to its reflections in water is provided for enabling an easy understanding
of this concept. This point is reiterated for emphasis by the Acharya once
Just as the one SEED called Maya is regarded according to the different states
such as the Undifferentiated, etc so the Self appears to be different in waking
and dream bodies like reflections of the moon in water
Thus we find in numerous instances in his seminal work the Upadesha Sahasri,
that Adi Shankara has provided a working definition of adhyasa, precisely
assigned its Cause, has illustratively elucidated its substratum, nature and
effects, has interchangably used the terms avidya and Maya, and has of course
asserted all along that with self-knowledge to which it is opposed this Seed of
Ignorance can be rendered sterile and incapable of germinating samsara.
We will examine some more of Shankara's writings on avidya in the next.
Now we will take up for
closer scrutiny excerpts from his most important and voluminous work - the
The introductory adhyasa bhashya of course covers the entire gamut of error and
its origin, etc has been dealt with in my series on the initial portion of the
adhyasabhashya - those interested can refer to these on my blog
www.adi-shankara.org. We shall now take up for consideration subsequent portions
of the sutrabhashya.
For the complete comprehension of Brahman is the highest end of man, since it
destroys the root of all evil such as Avidya, the seed of the entire Samsâra -
samsarabeejaavidya. Hence the desire of knowing Brahman is to be entertained.
What is pointed out here is the validity of jijnansa - of the desire to know
Brahman - it representing the highest purushartha, why? So that the root cause,
the seed of avidyA from which alone sprouts this variegated samsara is destroyed
Now let us examine in parallel another excerpt that occurs a little later.
The distinctive attributes mentioned here, such as being of a heavenly nature,
and so on, can in no way belong to the individual soul, which erroneously
considers itself to be limited by name and form as presented by Avidya -
avidya-pratyupasthappita and erroneously imputes their attributes to itself
taddharmaan svatmani kalpayatah
Here we find Shankara talking about Avidya asthe cause of adhyasa. The erroneous
attributes being superimposed on itself is adhyasa - why does this happen?
Because of avidya. Without avidya such a error would not be possible.
Furthermore continues Shankara..
Here the term 'Imperishable' Aksharam means that undeveloped avyakrtam entity
which represents the seminal potentiality of names and forms
namaroopa-beeja-Shakti-roopam, contains the subtle aspects of the material
elements bhootasukshmam, abides in the Lord, Ishwara-ashrayam forms His limiting
adjunct, tasyaiva upadhi bhootam
Here the same samarabeeja or seed of samsara is referred to by the term seed of
names and forms - namarupabeeja. And while it was referred to as avidya before
here it is referred to by the term Shakti. The potential power - Parashakti
Herself. And what does this Shakti consist of - the subtle aspects of the
material elements. The abode of this Parashakti is also clearly defined for us -
Parameshwara Himself is both Her abode and it this ParaShakti alone that
represents as it were His upadhi (from the standpoint of the jiva).
Thus we find the terms Avidya and Shakti describing the seed potentiality of
these diverse names and form.
Now we will take up an extraordinarily important adhikarana
In the latter portion of his lengthy bhashya, Shankara has the purvapakshin
raise a very critical objection - "How, it is asked, can we speak of the true
nature - svam cha rupam - of that which is unchanging and eternal -
kutasthanityasya - and then say that 'it (subsequently) appears in its own true
In other words you say Brahman is Eternal and Real - meaning it is
ever-unchanging across all periods of time. Then how can one talk about
regaining its true nature? For furthermore the interlocutor continues - we see
that - "Of gold and similar substances, whose true nature becomes hidden, and
whose specific qualities are rendered non-apparent by their contact with some
other substance, it may be said that their true nature is rendered manifest when
they are cleaned by the application of some corrosive substance; so it may be
said, likewise, that the stars, whose light is during daytime overpowered (by
the superior brilliancy of the sun), become manifest in their true nature at
night when the overpowering (sun) has departed. But it is impossible to speak of
an analogous overpowering of the eternal light of Consciousness atmachaitanya by
whatever agency, since, like Vyoman, it is free from all contact."
Only with another entity that is equally "real" can one entity be covered is the
assertion being made - if we say the gold regained its true glitter then we must
assume that some degree of sediment was obscuring its brilliance and hence one
needs to apply a chemical agent to remove that sediment and restore its lost
lustre anew. Alternative example is given of an overpowering influence - in this
case the lustre of the Sun, that renders the stars whose lustre is less
powerful, invisible until such time as the former recedes. How can one
understand Brahman, the Nondual Eternal entity to suffer from such an
Not satisafied, the purvapakshin raises one additional objection here - "and
since, moreover, such an assumption would be contradicted by what we actually
observe. For the act of seeing, hearing, noticing, cognising constitute the
character of every jiva sarvehi jivah, and that character is observed to exist
in full perfection, even in the case of that individual soul which has not yet
risen beyond the body."
In other word right now you see, I write, someone talks another one hears and
hence alone we observe individuals to possess sentiency - by these very acts
which in fact are seen to constitute the very characteristic of a sentient
human. If we find someone changeless and without speech, hearing, etc we
conclude the individual soul is no more! And here you claim that the individual
soul is in fact Changeless and Eternal when what we observe is the exact
He therefore asks (of the jiva, upon self-realization) : Wherein consists that
rising from the body? Wherein consists that appearing in its own form?
To this Shankara explains the siddhanta -- Before the rise of discriminative
knowledge pragvivekavijananutpatteh the nature of the jiva, which is pure light
jyoti svarupah, is non-discriminated as it were from its limiting adjuncts
upadhis consisting of body, senses, mind, sense-objects and feelings, and
appears as consisting of the energies of seeing and so on. Similarly--to quote
an analogous case from ordinary experience--the true nature of a pure crystal,
i.e. its transparency and whiteness, is, before the rise of discriminative
knowledge, non-discriminated as it were from any limiting adjuncts of red or
blue colour; while, as soon as through some means of true cognition
discriminative knowledge pramanajanitavivekagrahanaat has arisen, it is said to
have now accomplished its true nature, i.e. transparency and whiteness, although
in reality it was exactly so even earlier.... Therefor the individual soul
continuing in the state of its unmanifest nature
owing to the absence of discriminatory knowledge is said to have its real nature
manifested when discriminatory knowledge dawns. Thus the discriminative
knowledge vivekavijnanam - effected by Sruti - shrutikrtam on the part of the
individual soul, which previously is non-discriminated as it were from its
limiting adjuncts, is (according to the scriptural passage under discussion) the
soul's rising from the body, and the fruit of that discriminative knowledge -
vivekavijnanaphalam kevalatmasvarupaavagatih - is its accomplishment in its true
nature, i.e. the knowledge that its nature is the pure Self ... Therefore the
individual soul continuing in the state of its unmanifest nature owing to the
absence of discriminatory knowledge vivekavijnana abhavat is said to have its
real nature manifested when discriminatory knowledge dawns. Thus the difference
between the jiva and the Supreme Lord springs from ignorance alone,
mithyajnanakrta eva but not from the
things themselves, na vastukrtah, since both, like Space, are equally free from
We had earlier seen that the Acharya had defined avidya as anirvachaneeya -
neither real nor unreal. Here we find Shankara emphasizing the "neither real"
aspect of this avidya. Unlike in the case of sediment obscuring Gold, etc here
there is no real entity that is obscuring Brahman. The jiva due to a lack of
discriminative capacity mistakes the anatma - the assemblage of body/mind -
karyakaranasanghata - as his self, the atma, just as redness etc is superimposed
on a crystal which is in essence transparent. The absence of discriminatory
knowledge that is clearly explained here is thus understood in its appropriate
context. The jiva in reality is ever the Eternal Nondual Atma - his conviction
of the opposite is due to his lacking in discriminative knowledge.
Under what influence does the jiva lack in such discriminative ability - the
Acharya clarifies further...."after the unreal aspect of the jiva as such--which
is a presentation of Nescience, avidyapratyupasthapita, is tainted by many such
defects as agentship, experienceship, desires and aversions, etc and is subject
to evils of various kinds--is eliminated, the opposite aspect, viz the reality
that is the Supreme Lord, possessed of the characteristics of freedom from sin
and so on, becomes revealed just as the rope etc are revealed after eliminating
the snake etc
Again note the very same term - avidyapratyupasthapita - conjured up by avidya -
in other words under the spell of avidya - occuring repeatedly in these
instances. Needless to say an absence of anything including knowledge can
Adi Shankara now very poignantly sums up the entire teaching and subject matter
of the whole Brahmasutra in one single line!
"The theme of this sârîraka-sâstra is thus : There is only one Supreme Lord -
Eka eva Parameshwara - Eternal Unchanging - kutasthanityo - Absolute
Consciousness - vijnanadhatur - and Who, like a magician - mayavivat - appears
multifariously - anekadga vibhavyate - by means of Maya mayaya otherwise known
as Avidya - avidyaya. Besides this there is no other Consciousness as such.
This one sentence is a direct clincher as it were for many points.
That Brahman alone is the substratum for Maya - and it is none other than the
Parabrahman's intrinsic innate Shakti - and that it alone is Avidya. Such an
avidya then cannot be an absence - Brahman with the "absence of knowledge"
cannot "like a magician" conjure up a multi-variegated appearance. From the
standpoint of Brahman there is naught else - there can be no talk of anything.
From the standpoint of the jiva who talks about avidya it is very much a Supreme
Power - Maya Shakti. It is in this instance that we find the Acharya clearly
using the very terms AVIDYA and MAYA in one and the same contextual conformity.
One would do well to read this sentence in parallel with Shakti-roopam Ishwara
ashrayam quoted earlier to arrive at this understanding. That Maya Avidya Shakti
Parashakti in essence refer to one and only one entity.
Truly has it been said of this Maya Shakti
Sukhachidhakhanda vibodhamadvitheeyam, Viyadanilaadi vinirmatau niyojya,
Bhramayati bhavasaagare nithantham, Tvagathitha ghatanaa patiyasi mAyA.
Maya ,which is skilful in accomplishing the impossible, makes the Self, which is
of the nature of bliss and consciousness which is impartite and non-dual, whirl
round very much in the ocean of samsara by associating it with the created
elements - space, air, etc.
We will examine some more sections from the sutrabhashya in more detail in the
next in this series.We examined a few excerpts of the Shankara sutrabhashya pertaining to the subject matter of avidya/maya/avyakta/shakti from the first chapter of the Vedantasutra. We now continue to examine a couple of more very important ones.
This world when being dissolved (in a mahapralaya) is dissolved to that extent only that the Shakti (causal potentiality) of the world remains Shaktyavasheshameva - and (when it is produced again) it is produced from the root of that Shakti - shakti moolam eva cha prabhavati ; otherwise we should have to admit an effect without a cause itaratha aakasmikatva prasangatvat.
Here we find Shankara defining for us Shakti as that Primordia Cause unto which this entire manifest Srshti dissolves unto and from which alone spurts forth another cycle of this manifold Nature. The term the Acharya uses in this context is mula Shakti. Compare this with another instance elsewhere in the sutrabhashya where-in is described our "everyday" pralaya - aka sushupti. Compare how similar this is with what the revered Bhashyakara writes while glossing over a different sutra
-- So the contact of the soul with the buddhi exists potentially merely during deep sleep and pralaya, and again becomes manifest at the time of waking and the time of creation, because nothing can be assumed to spring up unless from something else na hi aakasmiki kasyachid utpattih sambhavati atiprasangat; otherwise we should have to suppose that effects spring up without causes. That the rising from deep sleep is due to the existence of seed avidya - avidyatmakabeeja sadbhavakaaritam
We cannot help notice that the Acharya uses almost identical language in both these instances citing the absurdity of a cause ex nihilo. What is also relevant here is the terminology used to establish that Causal Potency from which both the individual or the Creation emerge are mula Shakti and beeja avidya. Thus again we find interchagngable use of the terms mula avidya/beeja Shakti to represent that Supreme Avyakta. A more thorough treatment for this Avyakta is going to be handed to us by the Acharya very soon - which we will examine now.
Purvapakshin "In order to prove the possibility of the body being called undeveloped - avyakta - you admit that this world - jagadidam - in its antecedent seminal condition - namaroopabeejatmakam - before either names or forms are evolved - abhivyaktam - can be called undeveloped avyakta, you virtually concede the doctrine that the pradhana is the cause -pradhanakarana -of the world. For we (Sankhyas) understand by the term pradhana nothing but that primordial condition of the world."
Here the Sankhya wants to show that his Pradhana and Advaita's Avyakta is one and the same thing. THey both talk about a antecedent seed potentiality to all of Creation. How then do you say anything different from what I say - asks the Sankhya. To this Shankara clarifies..
"Things lie differently, we rejoin. If we admitted some antecedent state - pragavastham - of the world - jagatah - as the independent - svatantra karanatve - cause of the world, we should indeed implicitly, admit the pradhana doctrine. What we admit is, however, only a primal state dependent - aadheena - on the Supreme Lord - Parameshwara, not an independent state - na svatantra."
Here in we find clearly delineating for us the two Orders of Reality. One is the independent Real - svantantra - paramarthika Satyam - Narayana as ParaBrahman. The other is the dependent Reality or mithya which is vyavaharika satyam, and the latter of course borrows its satta from or has its abode on the former. Furthermore
"Such a causal state must necessarily be admitted - aavashyaupagnatavya -, since it is according to sense and reason arthavati hi sa. For without it taya vina the Supreme Lord Parameshwarasya could not be conceived as creator - srshtratvam sidhyati, as he could not become active pravrttiyaanupapatte if he were destitute of the potentiality of action Shakti-rahitasya. The existence of such a causal potentiality beejashakti renders it moreover possible that the released souls muktanam should not enter on new courses of existence, as it is destroyed by perfect knowledge vidyaya."
Shankara clarifies here that nirguna Brahman cannot be conceived as a Creator - a intelligent Creation that we clearly perceive has to have a that renders this possible - and that is none other than Ma ParaShakti herself. And it is crucial here to see that the presence of such a Shakti alone would ensure that those souls who acquire the Supreme knowledge that allows them to trascend Her domain get Total Liberation by attaining to their True Nature Vishnor paramam padam. Shankara continues -
"For that causal potentiality is of the nature of Avidya - avidyatmika hi sa beejashakti; it is rightly denoted by the term 'undeveloped; avyakta shabda nirdeshya' it has the Supreme Lord for its substratum Parameshwara ashraya; it is of the nature of an illusion Maya - mayi; it is a universal sleep Mahasushupti in which are lying the transmigrating souls sansarino jeeva destitute for the time of the consciousness of their individual character svarupapratibodha rahita. 1 This undeveloped principle is sometimes denoted by the term Akasha - so, for instance, in the passage, 'In that Imperishable then, O Gargi, the ether is woven like warp and woof' (Bri. Up. III, 8, 11). Sometimes, again, it is denoted by the term Akshara, the Imperishable; so, for instance (Mu. Up. II, 1, 2), 'Higher, than the high Imperishable.' Sometimes it is spoken of as Maya - mayeti suchitam - so, for instance (Sve. Up. IV, 10),
'Know then Prakriti is Maya, and the Supreme Lord is the Master of Maya' For Maya is properly called undeveloped - Avyakta hi sa Maya - since it cannot be defined either as that which is or that which is not tattvanyatvanirupanamya-ashakyatvat. The statement of the Katha Up that 'the Avyakta is beyond the Mahat' is based on the fact of the Mahat originating from the Avyakta, if the Mahat be the intellect of Hiranyagarbha. If, on the other hand, we understand by the Mahat the individual soul, the statement is founded on the fact of the existence of the individual soul depending on the Undeveloped avyaktaadheenatva jeevabhavasya, i.e. Avidya. Avidya hi avyaktam. And it is because of the possession of ignorance by the individual that all kinds of emprical behavior continue forever jivasya sarvah sanvyavahara.
How painstakingly does the Acharya apply the same coat of hue in brush after brush! Here-in we find such a vivid all-encompassing presentation from the benevolence of our beloved Acharya.
That Primordial Power is Beeja Shakti.
That beeja Shakti is Avidya.
This avidya, this Shakti is termed Avyakta.
This Avyakta is alone Maya.
This Maya is also called Akshara, the Imperishable.
Maya is also called Prakrti.
Avyakta is Avidya alone
And this Shakti/Maya/Avidya/Prakrti/Avyakta can neither be characterized as Real nor Unreal, and it has for its substratum the Supreme Lord Parabrahman. The same idea is reiterated in 1.4.9.
One is reminded of the sublime words of the Soundarya Lahiri in worship of this ParaShakti -
Jagat suthe dhata harir avati rudrah kshapayate
Tiraskurvan etat svam api vapurisastirayati;
Sada-purvah sarvam tad idamanugrhnati cha Shiva-
Stavajnam aalambya kshana-chalitayor bhru-latikayoh.
Brahma creates the world, Vishnu sustains it, Shiva destroys it,
Ishwara makes them disappear, And also disappears Himself!
And Sadashiva blesses them all, By Your Order given to Him,
By a momentary move of your eyebrows!
In the next in thise series we shall examine some excerpts from the subsequent chapters of the Brahmasutra as well that will allow us to dwell on the subject some more.