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Freedom Through Inner Renunciation: Sankara's Philosophy in a New Light.

Freedom Through Inner Renunciation: Sankara's Philosophy in a New Light. By ROGER MARCAURELLE. Albany: STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK PRESS, 2000. Pp. xvii + 269. $19.95 (paper).

A widespread interpretation of Sankara's Advaita Vedanta holds that Sankara considered the renunciation of all ritual duties and social obligations indispensable for the realization of self-knowledge. Numerous passages from his works support this interpretation: moreover, certain prominent Advaita teachers after Sankara insist upon it. It is certainly prevalent among Neo-Hindu and European interpreters, and has even been pronounced as official doctrine by modern Sankaracaryas. Nevertheless, this view stands in prima facie conflict with certain other statements Sankara makes. He argues explicitly at Brahmasutrabhasya (BSBh) 3.4.36-38, for example, that widowers and women are qualified for self-knowledge--indeed, he seems to say there that anyone who desires it is qualified. Women, however, are not eligible to undertake formal sannyasa, which according to Sankara is reserved for Brahmin men. On the other hand, he acknowledges that householders such as Janaka attained self-knowledge and liberation. Thus, the relinquishing of rites, essential to renunciation, cannot be a prerequisite. And, despite numerous passages where he stresses that the combination of knowledge and action--jnanakarmasamuccaya--is not the means of liberation, Sankara allows, in his Bhagavad Gita commentary, that Janaka and others attained liberation somehow "through action" (BhGiBh 3.20); in general, he embraces the karmayoga propounded in the Gita as a valid path. Finally, at BSBh 3.4.26 he argues that prescribed rites are, after all, somehow a means of self-knowledge!

What is one to make of these apparent inconsistencies? Are Sankara's writings too jumbled, too "unsystematic" (Hacker's charge)--consisting, as they do, mainly of commentaries on a by no means homogeneous corpus of scripture--for anyone to make sense of them? It is Marcaurelle's aim to show us that one indeed can, Sankara, he argues, presents a consistent, yet complex and nuanced, theory of the relationship of renunciation to self-knowledge in his writings, one which few, if any, scholars have comprehended to date. In the process, Marcaurelle offers an accurate and precise picture of Sankara's entire Erlosungslehre--an important contribution to Sankara studies.

The results of Marcaurelle's painstaking investigation can be stated succinctly: Sankara means at least three distinct things by "renunciation"--expressed by such terms as sannyasa, tyaga, nivrtti, uparati, etc.--in his works: (1) the physical renunciation that consists in a monastic or mendicant existence, which is prescribed for Brahmins who are seekers-of-liberation; (2) the cessation of the internal sense of agency that is part and parcel of self-knowledge, for the latter consists in realizing oneself to be Brahman, which is without activity and universal; (3) the spontaneous withdrawal from active life that is said to ensue for many upon the achievement of enlightenment, for one realizes that "what was to be done has been accomplished."

The first type is emphasized by Sankara often in opposition to those (mainly, Mimamsakas) who held either that liberation results from the performance of rites, or else at least that the neglect of obligatory duties would stand in the way of attaining liberation, and that the renunciation of ritual duties is always forbidden. By contrast, Sankara points out that scripture does in fact prescribe external renunciation--the actual foregoing of ritual obligations and the relinquishing of possessions--as a significant means or subsidiary of self-knowledge, even going so far as to say (BAUBh 4.4.22) that renunciation is the main means thereto. Nevertheless, it is prescribed only for Brahmins possessed of the desire to attain liberation, who may undergo formal or informal sannyasa after any of the first three asramas. (Formal sannyasa, in Marcaurelle's scheme, involves initiation into the sannyasasrama according to srauta rites; informal sannyasa is simply wandering mendicancy unconnected with monastic initiation.) The advantage of renunciation for such persons is that, in the first place, it allows for total devotion and concentration on what Marcaurelle calls "the discipline of knowledge," consisting of the threefold practice of sravana, manana, and nididhyasana, which culminates in self-knowledge. Second, and more importantly, it prepares one for, or serves as a practical anticipation of, the absence of any awareness of agency, which is central to the realization of the self as Brahman. As Sankara writes in one place: renunciation is to be resorted to "because liberation implies steadfastness in the actionless and true nature of the inner self. It is indeed not proper for one who wishes to reach the eastern sea [liberation] to face the opposite direction and take the same path [actions] as the man who wishes to reach the western sea [heaven and the like]" (BhGiBh 18.55, cited p. 145). None of this, however, means that Brahmins must undertake formal renunciation--they are eligible for the discipline of knowledge even without it; it is highly recommended, not required.

The second type of renunciation is equivalent to self-realization. In that sense, it really is a necessary means of liberation, insofar as liberation ensues directly upon self-knowledge. Renunciation in this sense is prominent in the Gita commentary, where it is referred to as nivrtti, "the cessation of activity," and jnananistha, "steadfastness in knowledge," sometimes also as sarvakarmasannyasa, "the renunciation of all actions." All three expressions can be used to indicate the enlightened person's absorption in the direct knowledge of actionless Brahman. At Gitabhasya 5.6 Sankara even equates sannyasa with Brahman: the word brahman in the sloka, he suggests, "is the true sannyasa consisting in steadfastness in the supreme self."

The third kind of renunciation is the monastic or mendicant existence that is said in some texts to follow naturally upon self-realization. Since a sense of agency is impossible for the enlightened person, it is logical that he would be inclined to give up all worldly activities. This is what is mentioned in such Upanisad passages as BAU 3.5.1: "It is when they come to know this self that Brahmins give up the desire for sons, the desire for wealth, and undertake the mendicant life" (cf. BAU 4.4.22). Such renunciation, however, is not really undertaken in response to an injunction, for the enlightened person is beyond all injunctions; it is a spontaneous result of self-knowledge. (The purport behind its apparently being enjoined for the enlightened in certain passages, e.g., BAU 1.4.7, is merely to reinforce what such a person is already inclined to do.) Those who choose to continue to carry out duties, on the other hand, do so merely "for the guidance of people" (lokasangraha), following the example of Krsna (see BhGi 3.22-24). Internally, however, they dwell in a state of complete inactivity.

All told, there is not a single passage in Sankara's entire corpus, Marcaurelle maintains, that unambiguously asserts that physical renunciation is a sine qua non for liberation. And so it would appear, for Marcaurelle seems to have examined every passage that would come into consideration and determined that it does not falsify his thesis. Yet, undeniably, throughout his writings, Sankara emphasizes that knowledge is the sole means of liberation, while karman is, strictly speaking, not really a means at all. There are two reasons for this emphasis. First, Sankara believed it to be a grievous error to think that liberation can in any way be effected by action; for it results simply from the removal of ignorance, that is, from the recognition of what is already the case--the inherent, eternally liberated condition of the self. If one thinks that something has to be done in order to become liberated, one is still in the grip of ignorance, and enlightenment cannot dawn. Thus, while Sankara is willing to acknowledge that karman, even including the practice of yoga, tapas, etc., is a "remote" means of liberation, it is really only a means of the "arising of knowledge" (jnanotpatti), insofar as it produces a purity of mind or intellect (sattvasuddhi), which makes the comprehension of the mahavakyas possible. It is the latter, knowledge alone, which is the true, "direct" means of liberation. Second, Sankara may have intended his works to be studied exclusively by Brahmins. As Marcaurelle plausibly suggests, Sankara may have thought them to be the only ones capable of understanding his writings, which are mostly taken up with the discussion of scriptural passages. Moreover, as Mayeda has proposed, Sankara may have believed that his ideas would not find a receptive audience among city dwellers, who had come under the influence of Buddhism, but that they would be better received by the Brahmin intellectuals and monastics of the countryside. Since this group, as we have seen, is according to Sankara enjoined to adopt renunciation for the sake of achieving liberation, it can appear, to the extent that he is addressing them exclusively, that he believed renunciation to be indispensable.

The last third of Marcaurelle's study tells the detailed story of how the view that Sankara considered physical renunciation indispensable for enlightenment and liberation became prevalent in his tradition. Here the main culprits were Sarvajnatman and the influential Anandagiri. Vidyaranya and Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, on the other hand, were two prominent Advaita writers who preserved Sankara's true position that the Advaita path is open to all irrespective of way of life.

On the whole, I find Marcaurelle's study to be quite convincing. His treatment of the material is exhaustive, extending over the entire corpus of Sankara's authentic writings; his analyses of individual passages are meticulous and balanced. The number of instances where I might disagree with his rendering of a Sanskrit expression or sentence are too rare to mention. Perhaps the study does suffer from a certain narrowness of focus insofar as it is primarily concerned to refute the mistakes of others; as a result, a more straightforward, logical presentation of Sankara's ideas about renunciation and the path to liberation is sacrificed. But this same focus also accounts for a satisfying density and rigor of argumentation. In the final chapter Marcaurelle does attempt to draw out broader implications of his critique. In particular, he suggests that the view put forward by Olivelle and others that there was a shift in the understanding of renunciation in Indian history, from an emphasis in ancient Brahmanism on external renunciation and asceticism accessible to only a few, to the emergence in classical Hinduism of a notion of inner renunciation which is compatible with active life and accessible to all--this story may need to be revised in light of a better appreciation of Sankara's view of renunciation. A correct reading of Sankara's writings shows that he at least believed that the ideal of an inner renunciation, which can be cultivated by anyone and which is compatible with householder existence, was in place from the start.

Another important consequence of Marcaurelle's work is that it provides a certain corrective to Hacker's view that Sankara was "cavalier" and unsystematic in his use of terminology. To be sure, language was not a straitjacket for Sankara; he was not overly concerned with the appearance of consistency. Most of the words he uses to refer to renunciation in his writings are polysemic, and his understanding of what renunciation is and how it relates to self-knowledge and liberation is complex. Yet in the end, when context is taken into account, one sees that, though he certainly could have been more careful in his statements, all real inconsistency is avoided and that his theory of renunciation is coherent. The complexity of his discourse, in fact, resonates of an attempt to be true to the phenomena.

The only aspect of Marcaurelle's study that is unconvincing is the claim that Sankara believed that not only women and widowers--those who are "outside the asramas"--are qualified for the discipline of knowledge, but also sudras (see pp. 29-32). Sankara's exclusion of sudras from qualification for knowledge at BSBh 1.3.34-38 seems quite uncompromising. Although he mentions that certain sudras are known to have attained self-knowledge, he says that it could only be the effect of "a preparation previously carried out" (purvakrtasamskaravasat), i.e., presumably, karman or knowledge acquired in previous lives (perhaps from hearing the scriptures as a Brahmin). While he also suggests that the knowledge of enlightened sudras could somehow have arisen from hearing the puranas and itihasas, this is certainly an inadequate basis for claiming that Sankara believed there to be a valid, established discipline of knowledge based on smrti, as opposed to sruti, texts; for he repeatedly insists that it is only from comprehending the meaning of the mahavakyas of the Upanisads that one achieves self-knowledge. Sankara's statement at BSBh 3.4.38 that anyone who desires knowledge is qualified for it seems to be intended only for widowers and women. Sudras are not mentioned there, and in any case he says explicitly in regard to sudras, at 1.3.34, that they cannot be considered qualified because of desire. Finally, Sankara attempts to explain away the reference to Janasruti as a sudra at ChU 4.2.3--a passage that Marcaurelle quite overlooks. (If Sankara ever wanted to declare sudras eligible for knowledge, that was his best opportunity.) In light of all this, Marcaurelle's assertion, pace Hacker, that Suresvara was not introducing an innovation when he declared persons of all castes to be qualified for the discipline of knowledge (pp. 171-72) needs to be reconsidered as well. Indeed, in the end, Sankara may have been more conservative than one would like. Exceptions there may have been, but Sankara clearly thought that as a rule the practice of the discipline of knowledge is reserved only for the twice-born. This may come as a blow to those, such as Marcaurelle, who might wish to see in Sankara's acceptance of householders as eligible for the discipline of knowledge encouragement not just for Hindu laypeople but for "spiritual seekers around the world" to engage in the higher spiritual practices of Hinduism. But it seems odd that modern seekers, especially if they are Westerners, would be concerned with whether they are acting in accord with medieval Hindu orthodoxy.

When all is said and done, I would maintain that even despite a study such as Marcaurelle's, and some of the other excellent work that has been done on Sankara's doctrine of liberation, we still have a very poor understanding of how Sankara thought liberation is supposed to come about. The picture we are presented with is roughly the following: liberation results from a full comprehension of the identity of the self with Brahman, which is achieved through the "discipline of knowledge," namely, the hearing, reflecting, and meditating upon crucial Vedanta texts, which in turn is somehow supported by the purification of the mind brought about by the observance of prescribed rituals as well as the practices of yoga. How do the immediate and remote means of liberation really work? Are the reflection and meditation on the word that lead directly to realization, for example, akin to puzzling over a math problem? We have some notion of what Sankara means by manana: the progressive ascertainment of the meaning of the Upanisad statements and the successive removal, through independent reflection, of misconceptions about the self. But what is nididhyasana? Is it merely the continuous flow of attention on the truth once realized, as some texts (e.g., BAUBh 1.4.7) suggest, or is it a repetition of the mediate, discursive knowledge of the self acquired from the Upanisads until a vivid, direct experience of reality is attained? To be sure, Sankara rejects the latter, championed by Mandanamisra as prasankhyana, as an enjoined means of liberation, yet he also allows that if hearing the mahavakya once does not produce realization, it must be repeated. How, if it doesn't work the first time, can it work later? Here, perhaps, "purity of mind" is crucial, which Sankara mentions in various places as conducive to the direct realization of the meaning of the Vedanta passages. But what is that and how does it function? Is it like the clarity of mind one has upon awakening from a good night's sleep, which enables one to see the solution to the math problem one couldn't see the night before? Sankara nowhere discusses it. In general, what is the change that takes place that converts a mediate knowledge of the self--the mere intellectual understanding "I am Brahman," which makes no difference in my life--into a direct, life-transforming realization, and how do the various practices that Sankara mentions throughout his works but never really explains or connects together, contribute to it? This, I would maintain, is what we, as scholars outside the tradition, do not yet, and indeed may never, understand.


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Title Annotation:Reviews of Books
Author:Taber, John A.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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