Studying the Brahma Sutra
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on February 9, 1997)

Atḥāto brahmajijñāsā (B.S. 1.1.1). These words came from the throat of Brahma himself, the Creator. Atha means ‘auspicious’. Now we discuss something most auspicious – om atha, om atha, om atha. Athaha: therefore. What is ‘therefore’? Therefore, having equipped ourselves adequately, we enter into a discussion on Brahman.

The other day we pointed out the difficulty: Who is to know Brahman? If I am to know Brahman or you are to know Brahman or someone is to know Brahman, that someone stands outside Brahman, and a Brahman known by someone else cannot be a complete Brahman because Brahman is inclusive. Bhuma is the name of this Brahman, as the Chhandogya Upanishads puts it. Yo vai bhūmā tat sukham (C.U. 7.23.1). What is Bhuma? Fullness. What is fullness? Yatra nānyat paśyati nānyac chṛṇoti nānyad vijānāti sa bhūmā (C.U. 7.23.2): Where one does not see anything outside, where one does not hear anything outside, where one does not understand or think outside, that Great Being, that Plenum of felicity, is Bhuma; that is Brahman. But if there is someone to see, hear, understand and imagine that one is going to know Brahman, that Brahman would not be the real Brahman because the point to be remembered always is that Brahman is inclusiveness. Everything is inside it. Even the one who is aspiring to know it is included in it, so there is no such thing as aspiring to know Brahman. This is the problem of jnana marga. Nobody can touch jnana. It will blow the mind, and people will go crazy because their mind cannot understand what this terrible thing is because no one can know Brahman. And yet, it has to be known. These apparently contradictory statements appear to a foolish mind which is not ready to understand what the Truth is.

There was nobody before creation. Therefore, what right has a subsequent created object to try to know Brahman, which is prior to its existence? Yet, it can be known. Sankaracharya, in his commentary, raises some questions. Is Brahman a known thing or an unknown thing? If it is a known thing, why are you worrying about it? If it is an unknown thing, then why are you worrying about it? So it is not a known thing; it is also not a totally unknown thing. Why it is not an unknown thing? Because it is vigorously asserting itself through the soul of each person. No one says, “I am not.” I am. This affirmation of ‘I am’ is actually the affirmation of Brahman, but the word ‘I’ here is a very intriguing thing because so many I’s are there – this is I, that is I. Which I are you referring to? It is not any of these I’s. It is the Supreme I that is speaking as the I of all individual beings.

This very hard subject can be clear only to a purified mind. It is necessary to have no desire for anything outside. You have accepted that there is nothing outside Brahman and therefore you are wanting to know Brahman. You should not be dishonest to your own self by saying, “I want something else. I have a desire for something else.” That is dishonesty of the first water. When Brahman is the only existent thing, how would you allow the mind to long for another thing? This is a hypocritical attitude of the so-called seeker of Brahman. A warning is given: Unless the longings for pleasures of this world, as well as the other world, are abolished and obliterated completely, one cannot become fit for the knowledge of Brahman.

What are the joys of this world? There are so many sense enjoyments. Beautiful things to see, beautiful things to hear, beautiful things to taste, beautiful things to smell, beautiful things to touch – these are the attractions of the world. Everybody runs after these attractions, and nobody is free from this longing of the objects of the world. If you are unfit for knowing Brahman, you should not even talk about Brahman. If you touch Brahman with these desires that are the longings of the earth, touching Brahman would be like touching dynamite. It may burst in your face. Therefore, abandonment of the longing for external desire is called for.

External things do not exist at all. That is the whole point. They are scintillating apparitions, shadows, deceiving colours and sounds. Therefore, they do not exist. Asking for pleasure from non-existent things is the worst of defects that one can discover in one’s own mind. “Why not have the longing for pleasures in heaven? Indra is enjoying there. I would like to go to heaven. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful joy! The gods in heaven do not eat; they have no hunger. They don’t wink, they don’t sleep, they don’t perspire, they are not tired, they don’t want anything. They are satisfied with themselves. Oh, that joy is wonderful for me. Let me go.” The joys of the heaven are only rarefied forms of sense pleasure. That desire also should go. The joys of this world and also the joys of the other world must be rejected completely. After having attained that, atha, therefore, one should know Brahman.

But the mind gets harassed by hearing so many contradictions. “This man is telling that, and that man is telling something else; what am I to make out from it all?” You go to so many places, read so many scriptures and so many philosophies, and they are upsetting the mind.

The other day we discussed the Sankhya. It is a very famous philosophy, and most people accept it. The presence of purusha and prakriti – consciousness and matter – is accepted, and these words are used even in such great texts as the Mahabharata, the Bhagavadgita, the Manusmriti, etc. Such noble textbooks of the highest authority use words like prakriti and purusha, so this will make us feel there is some truth in it. Why does the Bhagavadgita go on using the words prakriti and purusha when Sankhya is rejected by the Brahma Sutras? Now, let us not enter into the subject as to why they are using these words.

The main objection against the Sankhya is the assertion of duality: One thing is different from another thing. But the Sankhya forgets it is not possible to know that one thing is different from another thing unless there is a third thing which knows this difference. The one thing which is different from the other thing cannot know that the other thing exists at all. So there is a flaw in the argument. A third thing is necessary, which the Sankhya does not accept. It is caught up by a vicious argument of the self-sufficiency of purusha and prakriti. And even its concept of liberation is inadequate because Sankhya believes that separation of purusha and prakriti from contact with each other is liberation.

But there is a defect in that. Purusha is liberated from contact with prakriti, and purusha is accepted to be omniscient, all-pervading consciousness. But Sankhya, contradicting this statement, says that prakriti also exists. In liberation, prakriti is not destroyed. Where does prakriti exist? It exists outside purusha. Then where is the infinity of consciousness of the purusha? Is purusha omniscient, all-knowing? Yes, it knows. If it is all-knowing, it must be knowing the existence of prakriti also. The moment it knows the existence of prakriti, it gets caught, and so bondage will be there permanently. The Sankhya’s idea of liberation is not acceptable.

There are other schools which deny the existence of the Atman in itself, such as nihilism, Shunyavada, a trend in Buddhist philosophy which says that nothing is. This idea that nothing is arose from another series of discourses given by Buddha himself. Buddha did not say that nothing exists, but something followed from his standpoint. He said that everything is moving and nothing is existing at any particular point even for a moment, like the flow of the waters of a river. Not for a single moment does the water stand at one place. The river is not a stable object. It is a movement. That we are unable to conceive the continuous movement of the waters in a river is the reason why we mistake the river as a solid water reservoir. In the same way, the mind does not exist. The mind is only an imagined centralisation of a point, as is the point imagined in the flow of a river. Not for a moment does anything exist continuously.

But Buddha accepted rebirth and samsara, from which he advocated freedom. Now, what is he saying? It is possible that one may take rebirth. Who will take rebirth? That person who is to take rebirth does not exist even for a moment, according to the accepted doctrine. No karma is the cause of rebirth. Karma is the repercussion produced by the action of someone. This someone does not exist, because the existence is momentary. Momentariness is almost equal to saying it is non-existent. So, who will take rebirth? How would suffering be explained, which Buddha emphasised very much? There is suffering. You have to overcome suffering. This peculiar difficulty in understanding the real point behind what Buddha said created a discussion by another set of Buddhists, leading to nihilism. If everything is momentary, neither samsara exists, nor karma exists, nor bondage exists, nor anything exists. Non-existence is the final word of the nihilistic philosophy. The nihilists made the same mistake as the Sankhya doctrine made. Sankhya looked very logical, very acceptable, very beautiful from outside, but inside it was rotting due to the defects already pointed out.

So is this so-called boast and adumbration of nihilism, Sunyavada. Who is saying that nothing exists? Who is saying this? Is the non-existence itself saying that the non-existence is there? Does the philosopher of nihilism exist? If the philosopher of nihilism does not exist because nihilism abolishes the existence of everyone, then who is making a declaration that nothing exists? The Vedanta comes in and says this argument cannot be accepted. The Brahma Sutra refutes it. There must be someone to know that nothing exists. That someone must be existing. It is something like the argument which the Western philosopher René Descartes posed before himself: “Everything may be doubtful, the world may not be existing, I may not be existing, nothing may be there at all, and all things are dubious. It may be so. Some devil might have entered my mind, making me think erroneous things.” But he concluded, as a wise one, “The consciousness that everything is doubtful cannot itself be doubted. Therefore, I am.” In a similar way, the Vedanta asserts that there should be an awareness of there being nothing. If the Sunyavada accepts that there is an awareness which alone can say nothing exists, then the doctrine of nothingness is defeated out and out. Something is.

There are various schools of Buddhist philosophy. That is, the ethical idealism of Buddha only emphasised the momentariness of things, though he was a very highly ethical person. But others went to extremes, and there are four extreme types of offshoots of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. One of them is called Yogacara or Vijnanavada. This is totally refuted by the Brahma Sutras, in the Second Chapter. All that you see outside is the creation of the mind. This is the basic principle of Vijnanavada. Vijnana is a consciousness in the mind, or a consciousness itself as the mind, which projects itself as an outside world of perception. The world actually does not exist. Vedanta refutes it. The commentary of Acharya Sankara on this particular sutra is very long. Abhava, non-existence of the world, cannot be accepted. Some people open their eyes. What is Sankaracharya’s sutra telling? Is the world really existing? Are you contradicting your own Vedanta doctrine that the world ultimately does not exist? Why are you fighting with this Buddhist psychology?

Vedanta is a difficult subject, and any amount of probing into it will put you out of gear. In what sense is the world existing and in what sense it is not existing, must first be clear to the mind. But if there is nothing at all outside – there is only the mind moving outside, as is proclaimed by the Vijnanavada theory of Buddhism – it is refuted. Why is it refuted?

Acharya Sankara’s commentary is elaborate; it is worth reading again and again. If there is nothing outside, if the consciousness appears to be outside according to your doctrine, this doctrine cannot be accepted because how did the idea of outsideness arise in the mind? If the mind is only inside and is not outside, if it only projects itself as if it is outside, how did the idea of outsideness arise at all, because it is not existing at all. A non-existent idea, an impossible idea, cannot arise in the mind. Every idea has some meaning. Nonsensical ideas cannot arise in the mind. Even if you agree that there is some appearance outside, that really things do not exist, the appearance has to be outside. This outsideness must be accepted first. How did things appear outside even though they might be only mental? The mind is inside. You will see the whole world dancing inside your head. Why does it not happen? Therefore, there is an outright condemnation and criticism of Vijnanavada, that you cannot go on saying that there is an appearance of something being outside unless there is something outside. A rope appears as a snake, but even for that appearance, the rope must be existing. If the rope also does not exist, then the snake will not be there. Now, the other side comes. Does Vedanta accept that there is a world when you say that Vijnanavada is wrong? Very difficult is this subject.

There are two degrees of reality. One degree is called vyavaharika satta, and the other degree is called paramarthika satta. The object and the subject are on a par with each other. Anything that is above your mental operation cannot be known by you, and anything that is below your mental operation also cannot be known by you. You cannot know the heavens because they are above the operation of your mind, and you cannot know hell because it is below the operation of your mind. You can see only empirical existence because the mind is an empirical phenomenon.

Now, the question of whether the world exists or not should not arise at all because the existence of a thing is nothing but the acceptance by the mind that something is existing. When consciousness accepts that there is something, it exists. You cannot deny its existence, because who will deny it? Consciousness accepts it. The world is seen. Which consciousness is accepting it? The empirical consciousness, which is subjectively engaged in this physical body, is accepting that there is something outside because anything that is inside should also accept that there should be something outside. You cannot say your mind is inside. Who told you that the mind is inside? You have differentiated your mind from something outside. If the outside thing does not exist, the inside also cannot exist.

There is a clash between the inside and the outside in ordinary perception. The subject and the object clash with each other. Therefore, the mind cannot know the nature of the world correctly, nor can the world enter into the mind. Desires pertaining to the objects of the world cannot be fulfilled for this reason, because the mind accepts them to be outside. An outside thing cannot become an inside thing, so all desires are futile in their nature. They are a will-o'-the-wisp, a phantasmagoria that you are perceiving.

In this vyavaharika satta, in a practical, pragmatic state of existence, the world seems to be on par with you. You can shake hands with it. But you cannot shake hands with Brahman, the Absolute. Therefore, the Vijnanavada is not correct in saying that the world does not exist at all in any way. It exists in some way, though not in all ways. The vyavaharika satta is the accepted empirical reality of the world outside with which we come in contact every day, and the dealings of the world, the business of the world, goes on.

Therefore, we have to take the doctrine of the existence or non-existence of the world outside with a pinch of salt, very carefully. We should not go to extremes. Vedanta is a dangerous philosophy if the mind is not purified.

A Guru told the disciple, “All is Brahman.”

“Very good, very good,” the disciple said. He was walking on the road and an elephant was coming in front.

The mahout said, “Get away, get away, get away!”

The student said, “Why should I get away? The elephant is also Brahman only. My Guru has said it.” So the elephant caught hold of this man, threw him out and broke his legs.

The disciple went to the Guru and said, “Guruji, what have you told me? You said everything is Brahman, and I thought the elephant also is Brahman. It broke my legs.”

“Foolish man, did you not believe that the mahout also is Brahman? He told you not to stand there. You have not understood the thing properly,” replied the Guru.

So a partial understanding of Reality is no good. The Yoga Vasishtha warns us: If you tell the doctrine of Brahman to an unprepared mind, you yourself will go to hell together with that student. Don’t talk like that. It is mischievous to tell an unprepared person that all is Brahman. It will ruin the sanity of the person. He will get nothing out of it and he will lose whatever he has got. So again there is a warning: Vedanta should not be studied in the beginning. In the earlier stages there is bhakti yoga and karma yoga, upasana and other things. The upasana is also mentioned by the Brahma Sutras itself in the Third Chapter. You have to pass through the upasana stage – bhakti, as you call it – first.