An Analysis of the Brahma Sutra
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 1: The Forest of the Brahma Sutra

The greatest truths available for human comprehension are supposed to be documented in the great scriptures called the Upanishads. They are exultations of masters who are deeply involved in the ultimate principles of the cosmos. They are realised souls, called Rishis, but these Rishis in their expressions through the Upanishads spoke in terms of their particular vision of the Ultimate Reality.

A common student of the Upanishads is likely to feel embarrassed over apparently irreconcilable differences and contradictions among the statements of these great Masters. Every kind of philosophy you will find in the Upanishads. There are provisions for establishing the monism aspect of philosophy, the dualistic aspect, the active aspect, the volitional aspect – everything can be found. Even Sankhya and Mimamsa have a reference.

What is it that you are supposed to take from this big forest of statements on the nature of Reality? To clarify the intention of these sages and to reconcile these statements in a harmonious manner, and to point out that different expressions do not necessarily mean contradictory presentations, Brahma Sutras was written. They can be harmonised by a higher perception of what is there and what is happening. In order to harmonise these multifaceted statements, Bhagavan Sri Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa wrote a new text called the Brahma Sutras. Sutra is a thread that connects different parts of the vision of Truth.

All the statements connected with Ultimate Reality, known as Brahman in the Sanskrit language, have to be threaded together so that instead of the various statements of the Upanishads being contradictory outbursts, they become beautiful pearls in the garland of the knowledge of the Supreme Being, from various points of view. This act of reconciliation is called samanvaya.

We have problems like this in the Gita also. What is it that the Gita is telling us? 'Go ahead and fight'; 'Think of Me always'; 'I am doing everything' – what is the point in saying all these things which seem to be negating one another?

When a Cosmic Perception enunciates a Truth, it may look like a multiple proclamation of different hues, colours and emphases, which an ordinary person will not be able to reconcile. You cannot know which is the correct vision and which is lesser or higher. To obviate these difficulties, the great Master Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa wrote the wonderful interpretative textbook called the Brahma Sutras.

'What do you want?' is the first question. 'I want the ultimate Being, Brahman'. This is a terrific question, and a statement. Who is it that wants Brahman?

To avoid the quandary that may arise out of making a statement of this kind, the Sutra – the first one – avoids 'who', 'why' and all that. It simply makes an impersonal statement that Brahman should be known. Who should know It, it does not say, because if you ask such questions you will involve yourself in some kind of preliminary contradiction. Who are you to know Brahman? What right have you? So, avoiding such possible objections, the Brahma Sutra goes directly into the main theme, 'It has to be known'.

What is the meaning of 'knowing'? You know that there is a meeting here, I know that many people are sitting here, you know that I am speaking – this is a kind of knowledge, of course. Is it in this sense that you have to know Brahman? Or is there any other way?

The word 'Brahman' comes from a Sanskrit root, brhm – to expand, to be comprehensive, to include and be perfect. If the thing that is to be known you call Brahman is that which is inclusive and comprehensive, it must be including the knowing individual also. If the knowing person is outside this comprehensive Being, then that being would not be comprehensive, because it has excluded the knower or the person who aspires for it. So, it should include even the aspirant for it. Here is a knotty point before us.

If that which is to be known includes the knower of it also, then what is the answer to this question "Brahman is to be known?" Known by whom? It is already told that nobody is there to know it. Yet at the very beginning itself is a statement, 'It has to be known'. Is Brahman knowing Itself? Brahman is to be known – athato brahma jijnasa – when thus it is said, does it mean that Brahman is wanting to know Itself? What for is this book which is to be read by people when only Brahman can know Itself and no one else can know It? That is to say, there is no passage to It with which you can be acquainted.

We are all in the world of dualistic perception. We are here seeing something and there is something else which we are seeing. This is how we feel in this world. We cannot even use the word 'world', unless it is seen and confronted by us, because worldly perception which needs a duality, a dichotomy between the seer and the seen, which is the world, creates another difficulty regarding the way in which we can bring together the seer and the seen. The seer is not the seen, the seen is not the seer, is something very clear. You are not the world that is seen and the world which is seen is not yourself.

Such being the case, how would you bring together in a state of harmony the seer and the seen? Who is to work out this mystery? This deep analytical process, which will stun the mind of any person and debar anyone from even approaching it; this wonderful self-identical means of knowing Brahman is called Jnana, which cannot be translated into English language easily. People say Jnana means knowledge, wisdom, but they are all inadequate expressions of the operation that is taking place when Brahman is known.

You will be terrified at the very outset when feeling within yourselves the consequences that may follow from attempting to know a thing which can be known only by Itself. The meaning of this situation, if it has entered your mind, would explain to you what Knowledge is. It is not anything that you are thinking in your mind. It is not a degree qualification or a perceptual vision or empirical knowledge.

Jnanamay frighten away anyone even while approaching it. It can throw you out. You cannot go near It, as it will happen if you go near a powerful magnetic field. It will kick you back; you cannot go near. It is considering this aspect of the nature of Jnana, that Bhagavan Sri Krishna mentions in the Gita – 'this is a difficult path'.

Klesodhikataras tesham avyakta saktachetasam,
Avyakta hi gatirdukham dehavadbhiravapyate
.
(Bhagavad Gita XII.5)

Body-consciousness is the obstacle to understanding what all this means. Body-consciousness is just individual consciousness, affirmation of this particular individuality, the 'me'. It contradicts that which is inclusive and is complete and is itself, as it were. Brahman is also called bhuma, the All-comprehensive Absolute, Plenum, including everything. Those who are located in one body only – ego – are far from this Fullness.

Again the fear strikes us: Including everything? Including me also? 'Oh! This is not for me, this is not for me!' Everyone will say 'this is not for me', 'I will not go near It!'. Brahma-Sutrakara Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa knows all these problems, that people will be turned away by the thought, the very thought of the question regarding Brahman.

The Upanishads define Brahman. Let us see again what kind of thing It is. What kind of thing is Brahman? Satyam, jnanam, anantam. This is what the Taittiriya declares regarding Brahman.

Satyam jnanamanantam brahma.
Yo veda nihitam guhayam parame vyoman.
Soshnute sarvan kaman saha brahmana vipashchiteti
.

One sentence, this particular declaration in the beginning of the Second Chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad can make you so happy, thrill you to the brim, if only you could sense what depth of meaning this sentence contains. The moment you know Brahman, the whole Universe of Bliss enters into you and simultaneously you enjoy the whole universe; saha brahmana vipashchita.

You can enjoy so many things in this world. You can eat, you can go on a tour, you can read books, you can go to a drama or a cinema, you can dance – there are so many varieties of enjoyment; but when one enjoyment is taking place, another cannot come. They are all different things. So, successively we are enjoying different things in the world, but not all things at one stroke. Here is the difference.

The joys of all kinds of pleasurable encounters, whatever the number of these be, innumerable, infinite ways of the enjoyment of things in the world – when they all get clubbed together into a melting pot of a single instantaneous expression of Oceanic Bliss – that will be your experience when you experience Brahman, perhaps.

You shudder even to think that such a Bliss is possible. Even the thought of such an unthinkable Bliss can cause terror and tremor in our body. We can be in a state of terror and tremor by seeing fearful things, but here we can have terror even by imagining the superb Absolute – Brahman, wherein Bliss is a simultaneous completeness.

All disturbing and distracting notions in the mind have to be obviated first before we try to plunge into the nature of Brahman that is to be known.

The Brahma Sutra makes a statement 'Brahman is to be known'. Commentators write pages after pages in explaining the meaning of one Sutra only, athato brahma jijnasa. Volumes have been written, commentaries have been written, and commentaries on commentaries, and a third commentary on the second and the first! Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Vallabacharya, Nimbarkacharya, all wrote great commentaries on the Brahma Sutras.

Sankaracharya's commentary was commented on by Vachaspati Mishra in his exposition called bhamati. One of the disciples of Sankara, Padmapada, wrote another commentary. Another disciple of Sankara, Sureshwaracharya, wrote a third commentary, in his own way. They approached this subject from three viewpoints. Together they present three angles of vision of Sankara's commentary. Of these Sureshwaracharya treats the entire creation as a cosmic illusion, whose nature cannot be described by a person involved in that illusion. You cannot say Brahman creates the universe because Brahman is eternity, complete, indefinable, infinite, perfect existence par excellence. It has no necessity to create. The appearance of something being created is the result of a peculiar admixture of confusion cosmically called maya, and individually avidya.

Vachaspati Mishra's position is that your mind which is conditioned by what is known as avidya or ignorance distorts correct perception and the world does not exist as it is; it appears to be existing according to the particular form of avidya or ignorance in which you are involved.

Padmapadacharya is more realistic in his nature. He has written a commentary on the first four Sutras, called Panchapadika. Generally people follow the trend of Panchapadika only, with its great commentary called vivarana.

Vedantacharyas and people who teach Vedanta generally do not follow Bhamati's view or Sureshwaracharya's. Panchapadika's view is taken usually, with its commentary known as vivarana. The whole text of Panchadasi written by Swami Vidyaranya follows the line of Panchapadika of Padmapada. What is its speciality? The objective world must be existing. You cannot simply say your mind is creating the world of trees and mountains and all that. Such fantastic statements should not be made. Supposing it is accepted that your mind is creating things by avidya operation inside, then you have to agree that the trees in the forest are created by your mind; the cows and the pigs and the dogs that are moving in the streets – they are created by you only; the mountains, the sun and the moon and the stars are created by your mind. You cannot accept this view and you will be repelled by the very idea that your mind is creating the sun and the moon and the stars. You have to follow the dictum of the Upanishads that originally the creation was effected by a Cosmic Being and not by any individual human being. In the process of creation, man is a latecomer. There were the space-time manifestation, the five mahabhutas – earth, water, fire, air and ether; then the plants – trees etc. Man came later on. How can the late-comer, man, be regarded as the originator of the universe? An objective creator, Ishvara, is to be accepted and it is futile to say that the human mind created the universe. This is Padmapada's school of thought: srishiti-drishti – creation first, seeing afterwards.

One of the subjects or themes of philosophy which Brahma Sutra refutes vehemently is Sankhya, the duality of consciousness and matter, known as Purusha and Prakriti. We are usually prone to accept the Sankhya doctrine since we ourselves feel that consciousness is inside us and the world is outside. So, there is a duality. Then, what is wrong with Sankhya? Don't you believe that the world is material in its nature and you are conscious inside? This is what exactly the Sankhya doctrine proclaims. There are only two things in this universe, consciousness and matter.

What is the trouble with Sankhya, now? Why are you objecting to its doctrine? The problem is this. Consciousness can never become matter; matter cannot become consciousness. They are totally distinct things. If that is the case, how would consciousness know matter? How would consciousness come in contact with the material world, and know that it exists at all? Contact of dissimilar things is not possible. Only similar things will come in contact with each other. There is a complete disparity between consciousness and matter. Your capacity to be conscious is different in nature from the objects that you see in the form of the world. How could Sankhya explain this problem? Who brings consciousness and matter together? There is no answer. This is a great defect in Sankhya. For that, to save its own skin, the Sankhya says they can come in contact with each other in another way. How?

Suppose there is a pure crystal which is radiating light from all sides. You bring a red rose flower near this crystal. You will see the whole crystal is red because of the reflection of the rose flower in the crystal. You may say this is a form of contact of the rose flower with the crystal. Crystal may be compared to consciousness, rose flower to matter. Don't you agree that they have come in contact with each other? The fact that the crystal has not become the rose, but imagines that it is the rose, is the bondage of the crystal.

That the matter of the world outside cannot touch you and you are pure consciousness, and yet it appears as if the objects have entered your mind and tempt you and repel you, is the tragedy of the whole of life. This is one explanation the Sankhya gives. Two things do not really meet each other. They appear to meet so. If that is the case, bondage would be an appearance only. There will be no real bondage. Here again a contradiction in the Sankhya. If bondage is not real, then liberation also will not be real.

What is all this great effort of Sankhya to attain liberation? What is liberation? The freedom of the crystal from having any contact with the red flower – that is Moksha. That the red flower exists even when it is taken away, far away from the crystal so that the crystal does not appear any more red – can you say that it is the freedom or the emancipation of the crystal? Now, what is emancipation? It is the establishment of oneself in oneself, the establishment of consciousness in consciousness. What is consciousness? The Sankhya establishes the truth that it is infinite in its nature. Consciousness cannot be divided into parts, something here, something there. Because even to imagine a sub-division in consciousness, consciousness has to be present in the division itself. So nobody can conceive a division of consciousness. That would be a self-contradiction. Then, in that case, when the infinite consciousness establishes itself in itself, as the crystal would remain pure and shining as it was, the question arises: 'where is the rose at that time'? As consciousness is infinite, it is omniscient, it knows everything, and there is no rose outside it!

If this state of omniscience of consciousness is moksha as the Sankhya says, does that omniscient consciousness know that there is a rose flower outside it? The rose flower is only an example of matter, world, Prakriti. If due to the omniscience of consciousness, Purusha, it has to know everything, then it has to know Prakriti also, and even in emancipation it will come in contact with Prakriti. The bondage will be once again there. Prakriti is eternally existing according to Sankhya, it does not vanish in the liberation of a particular centre of consciousness. What does all this mean, then?

Vyasa, in the Sutras connected with this subject, refutes Sankhya philosophy vehemently and takes special pains to see that nobody gets contaminated by Sankhya dualism.

You should not imagine that Brahma Sutra is as simple as I am explaining! I have sugar-coated it and made it halwa-like. Otherwise, as it is, you will not go near it. It is a very long subject.