An Analysis of the Brahma Sutra
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: Consideration on Some Issues Arising in the Brahma Sutra

The Brahma Sutra has some special things to tell us in the course of its varied discussions on almost every topic forming part of the Vedanta system of philosophy. Some of these are as follows:

The realisation of Brahman is itself the liberation of the soul. Here, knowing Brahman is the same as being Brahman. This is a kind of knowing where there is no process involved as in the usual knowledge process of the knower, knowledge and the known. The known itself is the knower, and the knower is the known. It is a self-identical experience without the intervention of the apparatus of knowing. From this observation one can easily appreciate that knowledge of Brahman itself is the being of Brahman, and hence knowledge is not an action. Knowledge is not 'doing' something, but 'being' something. In this context the Brahma Sutra defines Brahman as that from which proceed the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. It is also said, towards the end of the Brahma Sutra, that the knower of Brahman will not return to mortal existence. When we read the initial statement as the definition and the concluding statement as the result thereof, we can gather what the Sutra is actually intending to say. It is evident that the state of Brahman is eternal and unchanging, not involved in the space-time-cause complex. Thus, the authorship of the universe, its sustenance and destruction do not fit well with the non-spatial and eternal nature of Brahman. The promise that the knowledge of Brahman puts an end to the transmigratory nature of the soul would easily demonstrate that the soul that attains freedom in Brahman is not going to be entangled in the process of creation, preservation and destruction, etc. Moksha or liberation has necessarily to be the realisation of the ultimate Absolute which is non-relative in nature. Creation, preservation and destruction etc. are relative processes involved in space and time and hence it could not be that the soul finds its liberation in the God who creates or the Brahman that is busy in the world process.

Considering this difficulty in understanding the very intention of the Brahma Sutra, commentators like Acharya Sankara were driven to accept that the non-return from Brahman mentioned in the Sutra, and the immortality attained therein concerns the creative Brahman and not the absolute Brahman. Sankara had to adopt this procedure of interpretation in order to synthesise the characteristics of liberation with the definition given in the beginning of the Brahma Sutra. Students of the Brahma Sutra will realise that there is something very unsatisfactory in understanding the relationship between the soul and Brahman, which is the crucial question arising at all times. The Brahma Sutra, in its large coverage, touches upon almost every school of Vedanta, accommodating the purely non-dualistic, the qualified non-dualistic, and even the dualistic aspects of Vedantic interpretation. The dualism arises when the Sutra pointedly says that the Creator Brahman is superior to the individual soul, which implies that the soul is somewhat subservient to Brahman and it cannot take for granted its relationship with Brahman so easily.

There is another difficulty which suddenly erupts in the Sutra when it speaks of the liberation of the soul. The Sutra makes out that the liberated soul is free only in so far as it can enjoy the bliss of perfection equally as Brahman, but it cannot have the power of creation, preservation, destruction etc. of the universe. This categorical statement would mean that even in the state of liberation the soul is not fully liberated. Here the Sutra seems to be landing itself on the qualified monism of Acharya Ramanuja, according to whom the soul is an organic part of Brahman but not identical with Brahman. If we persuade ourselves to believe that the Sutra is sympathetic with the Vaishnava theology of Ramanuja, we can easily understand why the soul in liberation cannot have the power of God Himself. Acharya Sankara here has practically nothing to tell us except to interate that if the soul is given the power of creation, etc., there would be a clash of purposes among the liberated souls. Here again arises the question: are there many liberated souls in the state of Brahman? Acharya Ramanuja would not disagree with this proposition, but Acharya Sankara would find here a hard nut to crack. 

A very pertinent issue arising in the Brahma Sutra is when it defines Anandamaya Brahman, stating that Anandamaya is Brahman. The word Anandamaya occurs in the texts on Vedanta philosophy, indicating that it is one of the sheaths covering the soul, there being five sheaths, the other four being the physical, the vital, the mental and the intellectual. Inspite of the fact that the covering of the soul cannot be the soul, the Sutra seems to emphasise that Anandamaya is itself Brahman. Commentators generally bypass this issue and would not like to enter into any controversy for fear of contradicting the obvious intention of the text and the reasoned conclusions spontaneously coming out of the issue. It was Acharya Sankara alone who had the courage to disagree with the Sutra and declare that the Anandamaya cannot be Brahman. The reason is that the Anandamaya sheath is the one into which the individual enters in the state of deep sleep. But if Anandamaya which causes sleep is itself Brahman, the individual will merge in Brahman in the state of sleep itself, which however is not the case. It is seen that after sleep, the individual wakes up to ordinary waking experience and involves itself in world consciousness. Now, what doctrine is the Brahma Sutra preaching, since Ramanuja would certainly be happy to fully agree with the statement that Anandamaya is Brahman itself. Would a commentator stand against the obvious meaning of the Sutra and contradict it by insisting on a non-dualistic interpretation? Here again comes in the quandary that liberation cannot be complete unless the soul enters into the unqualified Brahman and not the one with relative characteristics of any kind.

The Sutra refutes the Buddhistic doctrine of the vijnanavada or yogachara which teaches that the external would is a mental creation. The question is, why does the world appear to be external to the thinking mind. What is it that projects the world as an outside element independent of the mind, notwithstanding the insistence of the vijnanavada that the world is a projection of the mind. When the Sutra refutes the doctrine of the mind itself being the world, it would mean that it is corroborating the well-known feeling of everyone that the world is outside the mind. Is the Sutra here saying that the world is real in itself? Often it is said that the world is an illusion, that it is the body of God, that it is the reflection of God or that it is the appearance of God. All these considerations would lead us to believe that there in an objective reality called the world, and no human mind can conceive or produce such a world. Here comes in the great distinction made between Ishvara Srishti (creation by God) and Jiva Srishti (creation by the individual). The point here is that the world is a projection of God's Mind, and not a creation of the individual mind. World creation is Ishvara Srishti and interpretative experience of the world is Jiva Srishti or individualised viewpoint. There is a verse in the famous Panchdasi of Swami Vidyaranya:

Ikshanadi-praveshanta srishtir Ishana kalpita;
Jagradadi-vimokshantah samsaro Jiva-kalpitah

Which states the correct view of the relation of the individual to God and the world to God. The individuals do not create the world, rather they are involved in the world. After separation of the individual from the Universal Creation of Ishvara or God, the individual receives such a shock that it becomes stupefied and finds itself in a state of delirium whereby it sees itself as cut off from the world outside and totally helpless in interfering with the affairs of the world. The severance of the soul from universal inclusiveness drives the individual into a state of unconscious sleep (Anandamaya), from which it slowly wakes up through the apertures of the components of the Anandamaya to its conditioned perceptual instrument known as buddhi or the intellect, and manas or mind, prana or the vital force, and finally the physical sheath, the body. It is through the waking consciousness conditioned by physical existence that one interprets the world as if its conclusions are final and the only things to be known. But the intellect is a puppet pulled by the strings of conditioning potentials hidden deep behind in the mental and the unconscious levels, particularly the Anandamaya. The individual thus has a blinkered vision of the world, to which is added a distortion of perception, so that the individual can never know what exactly the world is and what its own relation is to the world. By a reversal process of the perceptual procedure, drawing in the sensory knowledge into pure intellection and further down into the very source of individuality itself, one can have a glimpse of the borderland of Brahman, the Absolute, by crossing the Anandamaya and piercing through its veil.

When the Brahma Sutra refutes the yogachara doctrine that the world is a mental creation, it does not seem to be intending to say that the world is real in itself, independently on its own. There are levels of existence, perceptual in their nature, which are usually known as vyavaharika or empirical, pragmatic and workable, different from the world of dream where also one beholds a world through the impressions created by waking experiences. There is further a totally illusory experience as in the case of seeing a snake in a coiled rope in twilight due to insufficient cognition. The levels of empirical reality are (1) the totally illusory one as the rope snake, (2) the conditional world seen in dream, and the (3) practical world of waking experience. The highest level, however, is the absolute experience of Total Being (Paramartha-satya).