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Upadesa Sahasri of Adi Shankara

Upadesa Sahasri is a philosophical treatise by Adi Shankara in which the great master discuss means to liberation and realize the Brahman


   1. We shall now explain a method of teaching the means to liberation for the benefit of those aspirants who deeply desire liberation, who have asked for this teaching and are possessed of faith (in it).

   2. That means to liberation, Knowledge, should be explained again and again until it is firmly grasped, to a pure Brahmana disciple, ( Alston notes:this should not be interpreted in a purely caste sense. At BS comm.. 3.4.38 Sankara quotes Manu SmR^iti 2.87 'Whoever practices universal benelovence and friendliness is a brahmana ), who is indifferent to everything that is transitory and achievable through certain means, who has given up the desire for a son, for wealth, and for this world' and the next, (Br.U. 1.5.16) who has adopted the life of a wandering monk and is endowed with control over the mind and senses, with compassion etc., as well as with the qualities of a disciple well-known in the scriptures, and who has approached the teacher in the prescribed manner, and has been examined in respect of his caste, profession, conduct, learning and parentage.

   3. The Shruti (Mu.U 1.2.12,13) also says, "A Brahmana after examining those worlds which are the result of Vedic actions should be indifferent to them seeing that nothing eternal can be achieved by means of those actions. Then, with fuel in his hands he should approach a teacher versed in the Vedas and established in Brahman in order to know the Eternal. The learned teacher should correctly explain to that disciple who has self-control and a tranquil mind, and has approached him in the prescribed manner, the knowledge of Brahman revealing the imperishable and the eternal Being." For only when knowledge is firmly grasped, it conduces to one's own good and is capable of transmission. This transmission of knowledge is helpful to people, like a boat to one who wants to cross a river. The scriptures too say, "Although one may give to the teacher this world surrounded by oceans and full of riches, this knowledge is even greater than that." Otherwise (if it were not taught by a teacher) there would be no attainment of knowledge. For the srutis say, "A man (Chh.U. 6.14.2) having a teacher can know Brahman," "Knowledge (ChhU.4.9.3) received from a teacher alone (becomes perfect)," "The teacher is the pilot," "Right Knowledge is called in this world a raft," (Mahabharata 12.313.23)etc. The smR^iti (Bh.G. 4.34) also says, "Know this through long prostration, through enquiry and through service, those men of wisdom who have realized the truth," will be impart it to you.

   4. When the teacher finds from signs that knowledge has not been grasped (or has been wrongly grasped) by the disciple he should remove the causes of non-comprehension which are: failure to observe the spiritual law, (dharma), carelessness with regard to worldly activities, want of previous firm knowledge of what constitutes the subjects of discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal, courting popular esteem, vanity of caste etc., and so on, through means contrary to those causes, enjoined by the Shruti and smR^iti, viz., avoidance of anger etc., and the vows (yama: harmlessness, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-acceptance of gifts) also the rules of conduct that are not inconsistent with knowledge.

   5. He should also thoroughly impress upon the disciple qualities like humility, which are the means to knowledge.

   6. What is the nature of the teacher. The teacher is one who is endowed with the power of furnishing arguments pro and con, of understanding questions and remembering them, who possesses tranquillity, self-control, compassion and a desire to help others, who is versed (through the tradition handed down) in the scriptures and unattached to enjoyments both seen and unseen,who has renounced the means to all kinds of actions (ritualistic etc.), who is a knower of Brahman (brahmavit) and is established in it, who is never a transgressor of the rules of conduct, and who is devoid of shortcomings such as ostentation, pride, deceit, cunning, jugglery, jealousy, falsehood, egotism and attachment. He has the sole aim of helping others and a desire to impart the knowledge of Brahman only. He should first of all teach the Shruti texts establishing the oneness of the self with Brahman such as, "My child, in the beginning it (the universe) was Existence only, one alone without a second,"ChhU 6.2.1) "Where one sees nothing else" ChhU 7.24.1. " All this is but the Self," (ChhU 7.25.2) " In the beginning all this was but the one Self"(ChhU Ai.U.1.1.1) and "All this is verily Brahman." (ChhU. 3.14.1)

   7, 8. After teaching these he should teach the definition of Brahman through such Shruti texts as "The self, devoid of sins," (ChhU 8.7.1) "The Brahman that is immediate and direct,"(BrU 3.4.1) "That which is beyond hunger and thirst," (BrU3.5.1) "Not-this, not-this," BrU 2.3.6) " Neither gross nor subtle," (BrU 3.8.8) " This Self is not- this," (BrU3.9.26) " It is the Seer Itself unseen,"( BrU 3.8.11) " Knowledge-Bliss,"(BrU 3.9.27ff) "Existence-Knowledge-Infinite," (Tai.U. 2.1) "Imperceptible, bodiless,"(Tai.U. 2.7) "That great unborn Self," (BrU 4.4.22) " Without the vital force and the mind," (Mu.U 2.1.2) "Unborn, comprising the interior and exterior," ((MuU2.1.2) " Consisting of knowledge only," (BrU 2.4.12) " Without interior or exterior,"(BrU2.5.19) "It is verily beyond what is known as also what is unknown" (Ke.U. 1.3) and "Called AkASha (the self-effulgent One) " (ChhU 8.14.1) and also through such smR^iti texts. as the following: "It is neither born nor dies," (BhG 2.20) " It is not affected by anybody's sins,," (BhG 5.15) "Just as air is always in. the ether," (BhG. 9.6) "The individual Self should be regarded as the universal one," (BhG 13.2) "It is called neither existent nor nonexistent," (BhG BhG 13.12) "As the Self is beginningless and devoid of qualities,"(BhG 13.31) "The same in all beings" (BhG 13.27) and "The Supreme Being is different" (BhG 15.17)-all these support the definition given by the Shruti and prove that the innermost Self is beyond transmigratory existence and that it is not different from Brahman, the all-comprehensive principle.

   9. The disciple who has thus learnt the definition of the inner Self from the Shruti and the smR^iti and is eager to cross the ocean of transmigratory existence is asked, "Who are you, my child?"

   10, 11. If he says, "I am the son of a Brahmana belonging to such and such a lineage; I was a student or a householder, and am now a wandering monk anxious to cross the ocean of transmigratory existence infested with the terrible sharks of birth and death," the teacher should say, "My child, how do you desire to go beyond transmigratory existence as your body will be eaten up by birds or will turn into earth even here when you die? For, burnt to ashes on this side of the river, you cannot cross to the other side."

   12, 13. If he says, "I am different from the body. The body is born and it dies; it is eaten up by birds, is destroyed by weapons, fire etc., and suffers from diseases and the like. I have entered it, like a bird its nest, on account of merit and demerit accruing from acts done by myself, and like a bird going to another nest when the previous one is destroyed I shall enter into different bodies again and again as a result of merits and demerits when the present body is gone. Thus in this beginningless world on account of my own actions I have been giving up successive bodies assumed among gods, men, animals and the denizens of hell and assuming ever new ones. I have in this way been made to go round and round in the cycle of endless births and deaths, as in a Persian wheel by my past actions, and having in the course of time obtained the present body I have got tired of this going round and round in the wheel of transmigration, I have come to you, Sir, to put an end to this rotation. I am, therefore, always different from the body. It is bodies that come and go, like clothes on a person." The teacher would reply,"You have spoken well, you see aright. Why then did you wrongly say,' I am the son of a Brahmana belonging to such and such a lineage; I was a student or a householder, and am now a wandering monk'?"

   14, 15. If the disciple says, "How did I speak wrongly, Sir?," the teacher would reply, "Because by your statement, 'I am the son of a Brahmana belonging to such and such a lineage etc.' you identified with the Self devoid of birth, lineage and purificatory ceremonies, the body possessed of them that are different' (from the Self)."

   16, 17. If he asks, "How is the body possessed of the diversities of birth, lineage and purificatory ceremonies. (different from the Self) and how am I devoid of them?" The teacher would say, "Listen, my child, how this body is. different from you and is possessed of birth, lineage and sanctifying ceremonies and how you are free from these." Speaking thus he will remind the disciple saying, "You. should remember, my child, you have been told about the innermost Self which is the Self of all, with its characteristics. as described by the Shruti such as 'This was existence, my child' (ChhU. 6.2.1) etc., as also the smR^iti, and you should remember these characteristics also."

   18. The teacher should say to the disciple who has remembered the definition of the Self, "That which is called akaSha (the self-effulgent one) which is distinct from name and form, bodiless, and defined as not gross etc., and as free from sins and so on, which is untouched by all transmigratory conditions, 'The Brahman that is immediate and direct,' (Br.U. 3.4.1) 'The innermost Self,' (Br.U.3.4.1)'The unseen seer, the unheard listener, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower, which is of the nature of eternal knowledge, without interior or exterior, consisting only of knowledge, all-pervading like the ether and of infinite power-that Self of all, devoid. of hunger etc., as also of appearance and disappearance, is,. by virtue of Its inscrutable power, the cause of the manifestation of unmanifested name and form which abide in the Self through Its very presence, but are different from It, which are the seed of the universe, are describable neither as identical with It nor different from It, and are cognized by It alone.

   19. "That name and form though originally, unmanifested, took the name and form of ether as they were manifested from that Self. This element called the ether thus arose out of the supreme Self, like the dirt called foam coming out of transparent water. Foam is neither water nor absolutely 'different from it. For it is never seen apart from water. But water is clear, and different from the foam which is of the nature of dirt. Similarly, the Supreme Self, which is pure and transparent, is different from name and form, which stand for foam. These-corresponding to the foam-having originally been unmanifest, took the name and form of the ether as they were manifested.

   20. "Name and form, as they became still grosser in the course of manifestation, assumed the form of air. From that again they became fire, from that water, and thence earth. In this order the preceding elements penetrated the succeeding ones, and the five gross elements ending 'with earth came into existence. Earth, therefore, possesses the qualities of all the five gross elements. From earth, .compounded of all five great elements, herbs such as paddy and barley are produced. From these, after they are eaten, are formed blood and the seed of women and men respectively. These two ingredients drawn out, as by a churning rod, by lust springing from ignorance, and sanctified by mantras are placed in the womb at the proper time. Through the infiltration of the sustaining fluids of the mother's. body, it develops into an embryo and is delivered at the ninth or tenth month.

Adi Shankara Upadesa Sahasri
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