The Brahma Sutras Made Simple
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on February 8, 1997)

The greatest truths available for human comprehension are said to be documented in the great scriptures called the Upanishads. They are exultations by Masters who were deeply involved in the ultimate principles of the cosmos. They were 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 apparent irreconcilable differences and contradictions, as it were, among the statements of these great Masters. Every kind of philosophy can be found in the Upanishads. There are provisions for establishing the monism aspect of philosophy, the dualistic aspect, the qualified monism aspect, the devotional aspect, the active aspect, the volitional aspect, and even Sankhya and Mimamsa to some extent. Everything can be found. What is it that we are supposed to take from this big forest of statements on the nature of Reality?

People in India will say that just now it is daytime. In America people will say it is night. These are not contradictory statements, and they can be harmonised by a higher perception of what is happening, and so on.

In order to harmonise these multifaceted statements, Bhagavan Sri Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa wrote a new text called the Brahma Sutras 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 expressions. A sutra is a thread that connects different parts of the vision of Truth. All statements connected with the 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 the Gita telling us? “Go ahead and fight.” “Think of Me always.” “Do hard work.” “I am doing everything.” What is the use of 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 emphasis 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 the very terrific question and a statement. Who is it that is wanting Brahman? To avoid the quandary that may arise out of making a statement of this kind, the first sutra avoids questions of who, why, and so on. 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 got? Avoiding such possible preliminary 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 building 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 we have to know Brahman? Or is there any other way? The word Brahman comes from a Sanskrit root called brhm: to expand, to be comprehensive, to include. If the thing that is to be known, called Brahman, is that which is inclusive, comprehensive, then 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 those aspiring for it.

Here is a knotty point before us. If that which is to be known also includes the knower of it, then what is the answer to this question that Brahman is to be known? Known by whom? It is already mentioned that nobody is there to know it, yet at the very beginning itself is the statement that it has to be known. Is Brahman knowing itself? Brahman is to be known: athāto brahmajijñāsā. When this 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 people can be acquainted. We are all in the world of dualistic perception. We are here seeing something, and there is something which we are seeing. This is how we live in this world. We cannot even use the word ‘world’ unless it is seen and confronted by us because our worldly perception, which needs a duality – a dichotomy between the seer and the seen, which is the world – creates another difficulty, which is the way in which we can bring together the seer and the seen. The seer is not the seen, and the seen is not the seer; this is something very clear. You are not the world that is seen, and the world that is seen is not yourself. Such being the case, how would you bring together the seer and the seen in a state of harmony? 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 the English language easily. People say jnana means knowledge, wisdom, but these are all inadequate expressions of the operation that is taking place when Brahman is known. We will be terrified at the very outset when we feel within ourselves 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 our mind, would explain to us what knowledge is. It is not anything that we are thinking in our mind. It is not a degree, a qualification, a perceptual vision or empirical knowledge. Therefore, jnana may frighten away anyone. Even by approaching it, it can throw us out. We cannot go near it, as would happen if we go near a powerful magnetic field. It will kick us out; we cannot go near it.

Considering this aspect of the nature of jnana, Bhagavan Sri Krishna mentions in the Twelfth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita that it is a terrific path. Kleśo’dhikataras teṣāṁ avyaktāsaktacetasām, avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir avāpyate (B.G. 12.5). Body-consciousness is the obstacle to understanding what all this means. Body-consciousness is just individual-consciousness, affirmation of this particular individuality – me. It totally contradicts that which is inclusive and is complete in itself. Brahman is also called Bhuma, the all-comprehensive Absolute, the Plenum, including everything. Again fear strikes us: “Including everything, including me also. Oh, this is not possible.” Everyone will say, “This is not for me. I won’t go near it.”

Brahmasutrakara Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa knew that people will be turned away by the very thought of the great question regarding Brahman. The Upanishads define Brahman. What kind of thing is Brahman? Satyaṁ jñānam anantam is what the Taittiriya declares regarding Brahman. Satyaṁ jñānam anantam brahma, yo veda nihitaṁ guhāyām parame vyoman so'śnute sarvān kāmān saha brahmaņā vipaścitā, iti (Tait. 2.1.1). One sentence, this particular declaration in the beginning of the Second Chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad, can make us so happy, thrill us to the brim, if only we could sense what depth of meaning this sentence contains.

The moment we know Brahman, the whole universe of bliss enters into us, and simultaneously we enjoy the whole universe. We can enjoy so many things in this world. We can eat, we can go on a tour, we can read books, we can go to a drama or cinema, or we 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 we are enjoying different things in the world successively, but not all things at one stroke. The joys of all kinds of pleasurable encounters, whatever the numbers of these be – innumerable, infinite ways of the enjoyment of things in this world – when they all get clubbed together into a melting pot of a single instantaneous expression of oceanic bliss, that will be our experience when we experience Brahman. We 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 have tremor by imagining a great thing. Either way, we are in a state of fright.

All disturbing and distracting notions in the mind have to be obviated first before we try to plunge into the nature of the Brahman that is to be known. The Brahma Sutras make a statement: Brahman is to be known. Commentators write pages after pages in explaining the meaning of one sutra only: athāto brahmajijñāsā. Volumes have been written, commentaries have been written, and commentaries on commentaries, and a third commentary on the second and the first.

Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Vallabhacharya, Nimbarkacharya, all wrote great commentaries on the Brahma Sutras. Shankaracharya’s commentary was commentated by Vachaspati Mishra in his great exposition called Bhamati. One of the disciples of Shankaracharya, Padmapada, wrote another commentary. Another disciple of Sankara, Sureshvaracharya, wrote a third commentary. They approached this cosmic illusion whose nature cannot be described by a person involved in that illusion. That is the creator of this universe. We cannot say Brahman created 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 cosmic confusion, called maya. This is Sureshvaracharya.

The point of view of Vachaspati Mishra’s Bhamati is that our mind, which is conditioned by avidya, or ignorance, distorts correct perception, and the world does not exist as it appears. It appears to be existing according to the particular form of avidya, or ignorance, our mind takes.

Padmapadacharya is more realistic in his nature. He has written a commentary on the first four sutras of Sankaracharya, called Panchapadika. Generally, people follow the trend of Panchapadika. Vedantacharyas and people who teach Vedanta generally do not follow the Bhamati view, or Sureshvaracharya. The Panchapadika view is taken. The whole text of the Panchadasi, written by Swami Vidyaranya, follows the trend of the Panchapadika of Padmapada.

What does it mean? The objective world must be existing. You cannot simply say your mind is creating the whole world of trees and mountains and so on. Such a fantastic statement should not be made. If it is accepted that your mind is creating things by the operation of avidya inside, you have to agree that the trees in the forest are created by your mind. The cows, the pigs and the dogs that are moving on the streets are all created by you. The mountains, the sun, the moon and the stars are created by your mind. Since you cannot accept this view – 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 was the manifestation of space-time, the five mahabhutas – earth, water, fire, air and ether – then the plants, trees, etc. Man came later on. How can man, the latecomer, be regarded as the creator 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 view.

One of the subjects or themes of philosophy which the Brahma Sutra refutes very vehemently is Sankhya: the duality of consciousness and matter, which is 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 us, so there is a duality. So what is wrong with Sankhya? Don’t you believe that the world is material in its nature, and that you are conscious inside? This is exactly what the Sankhya doctrine proclaims. There are only two things in this universe: consciousness and matter.

So what is the trouble with Sankhya? Why is there an objection to its doctrine? The problem is that consciousness can never become matter, and 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 may come in contact with each other, and there is a complete disparity between consciousness and matter. Your capacity to be conscious is totally 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? It has 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. If you bring a red rose flower near this crystal, you will see the whole crystal is red because of the reflection of the rose in the crystal. You may say this is a kind of contact of the rose with the crystal. The crystal may be compared to consciousness, and the 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. The matter of the world outside cannot touch you. You are pure consciousness, and yet it appears as if the objects have entered your mind, and tempt you and repel you. This is the tragedy of the whole of life. This is one explanation Sankhya gives. Two things do not really meet each other; they appear to meet each other. If that is the case, bondage would be an appearance only. There will be no real bondage. Here again is a contradiction in the Sankhya. If the bondage is not real, then liberation also will not be real. So this observation of Sankhya is not correct.

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 is moksha. Does the red flower exist even when it is taken far away from the crystal so that the crystal does not any more appear red? Can you say that it is the freedom or emancipation of the crystal?

Now, what is emancipation? It is the establishment of oneself in oneself, establishment of consciousness in consciousness. What is consciousness? The Sankhya establishes the truth that consciousness is infinite in its nature. Consciousness cannot be divided into parts – something here, something there – because even to imagine a subdivision of consciousness, consciousness has to be present in the division itself. So nobody can conceive division of consciousness. It is 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, a question arises: Where is the rose at that time? As consciousness is infinite, it is omniscient; it knows everything. Now, in this state of the omniscience of consciousness, which is moksha, as the Sankhya says, does that omniscient consciousness know that there is a rose flower outside it, or has the rose flower also vanished? The rose flower is only an example of matter, the world, prakriti. If, due to the omniscience of consciousness, purusha, it has to know everything and it has to know prakriti also, then 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. The whole thing is a chaos. Vyasa, in the sutra connected with the subject, refutes the Sankhya philosophy very vehemently, and he takes special pains to see that nobody gets contaminated by Sankhya thought.

I have made the Brahma Sutras simple for you. If you read the original book, you will run away from it. You should not imagine the Brahma Sutra is as simple as I am explaining. I have sugar coated it and made it halawa-like. This is a philosophical jungle that has to be cleared and converted into a beautiful garden.