Three Acaryas and Narayana Guru, The Ongoing Revaluation of Vedanta, by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad
The initial glimpses of what is called Hinduism and Vedanta are often overwhelming. Swami Muni Narayana Prasad has succeeded in creating order from chaos by successfully clarifying the mind-boggling oceanic diversification of textual teachings that occurred in India in the Middle Ages. For those who have wondered how and why, his book on the Three Acaryas [pronounced acharyas] is illuminating indeed.
The Upanishads were written to elucidate, explain and transmit the primordial metaphysical Wisdom-Knowledge in the Rig Veda and the other three subsequent Vedas, the Sama, the Yajur, and the Artharva.
The Brahma-Sutras followed the four Vedas and the Upanishads as “an attempt to logically substantiate and represent the wisdom of the Upanishads.” The Brahma-Sutras were composed by the celebrated compiler Badarayana, and according to Swami Muni Narayana Prasad, scholars agree that it is at least 1500 years old.
The great teachers such as Shankara (CE 788-820), Ramanuja (CE 1017-1137), and many others then wrote their commentaries on the Brahma-Sutras. The Brahma-Sutras thus became the target and focus for “those who were seeking to become recognised authorities on Vedanta, to write their own commentary.” Adding to the plethora of arguments, confusion and uncertainty there followed more “commentaries and commentaries upon commentaries” — and thus we understand why Vedanta is often felt to be a daunting maze difficult to approach.
The three main commentaries on the Brahma-Sutras are from Shankara (Advaita, non-dualism), Ramanuja (qualified non-dualism), and Madhva (Dvaita – dualism).
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad: “Many commentaries fall within one of these three schools, each spawned by the original commentary of their respective acarya. Even a superficial study of these commentaries plainly reveals that an extensive befuddling of the clear and simple vision found in the Upanishads had occurred. Pedantic exercises, seen in the explanations, additions, and refutations, seem to have taken the foreground for the proponents of each rivalling school.”
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad: “Thus Vedanta, India’s most appealing and finalised presentation of wisdom, became an amorphous world of controversial doctrinal nuances. In art, culpability lay in a declining familiarity with the very fountainhead of Vedanta, the Upanishads. …an impartial seeker…would have landed in a quandary indeed.”
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad goes on to explain each school and the texts that emerged from them. As is usual from this wonderful man who so easily creates order from chaos, this scholarly book is clearly cleanly written and is of interest to anyone who has wandered in the tantalizing Labyrinth that was wrongly named Hinduism by the west.
Buddhism is another factor in Vedanta's vast and complicated history. Swami Muni Narayana Prasad says, “By the eighth century CE, Vedic culture in India was in decline as a burgeoning Buddhist culture threatened to completely usurp it. The strong emergence of Buddhism was due in part to a natural reaction against overemphasized and forceful ritualism adhered to by the Hindu followers of the Purva-Mimamsa.” My understanding is that the followers of Mimamsa [Sayana for example] are said to have placed value solely on priestly ritual and recitation over the actual meaning of the Rig Veda mantras.
The Buddha reacted quite rightly to the abuses of the ritual and what I called priest-craft. The loss of metaphysical Truth and meaning is cyclical, and appears to occur again and again, as the enlightened Seers pass on and are replaced by their well-meaning disciples, often lesser men who ritualize and mimic the enlightened experiences of the master. Authentic experiential God-Consciousness is consequently often replaced with repetitious ritual and expensive ceremony. Thus we see the continual pattern of Truth/Satya emerging in individuals touched by Grace, yet inevitably becoming lost, watered-down, scattered and skewed by those who follow – as the gems of Light that have emerged in the Kali Yuga are once again obfuscated in the dense thicket of Delusion.
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad respectfully and objectively describes the lives of the three Acaryas, Shankara (CE 788-820), Ramanuja (CE 1017-1137), and Madhva (CE 1238-1317). All three of these men were exceptionally brilliant, not only intellectually superior, but also charismatic with intensity of purpose. I found some of the occurrences in the lives of these saints rather more Rajasic in that as men do, they fiercely competed with others to attain dominance. Swami Muni Narayana Prasad lists the many sources from which he gathered biographical information, but warns that the biographical sketches are “derived primarily from the poetic-biographies extant, and contain details most likely exaggerated, twisted and even fanciful."
Shankara (CE 788-820)
For example it was purported that Shankara met the Kashmir Shaivite Abhinavagupta (CE 950-1020) in Assam, and “debated and defeated Abhinavagupta in spiritual arguments. Abhinavagupta’s followers then vengefully used their occult powers to make Shankara physically sick.” Shankara was eventually nursed back to health by one of his disciples. This seems quite unlikely to me as the dates of these two masters make such an encounter completely absurd.
The story is examined in biographies of Abhinavagupta with the explanation that the Abhinavagupta in Assam was not the Kashmir Shaivite saint and savant. A recent book on the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarians by Peter Heather suggests that we as readers should place the same trust in those who wrote ancient history, as we would in used car salesmen!
Ramanuja (CE 1017-1137)
Here are a few other intriguing examples of saintly behaviour in the Middle Ages. Ramanuja disagreed with his guru. Intimidated by Ramanuja's genius, the guru considered Ramanuja to be his mortal enemy and plotted unsuccessfully to kill him. Later on Ramanuja needed a special reference book that was kept in Kashmir to write his commentary on the Brahman-Sutras, and therefore made the journey and “procured, by stealth” the book, which was after a chase, recovered.
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad points out that Ramanuja was “well aware of the growing influence of Islam” and that this and other crucial factors influenced his “outlook and subsequent mission.” There is a charming mystical tale revolving around a missing statue of a deity and a king’s daughter. The story serves to demonstrate how such parables become embedded in the human heart as fact — but cannot always be taken literally, as in this case it was historically impossible.
Madhva (CE 1238-1317)
Madhva was a Dualist, Dvaita in Sanskrit, and against the teachings of Advaita, those who accepted non-duality. “He has been aggrandised for his efforts to eliminate the predominant philosophy of Shankara through his own counter-propagation.” Thus we see that these philosopher saints were not all in agreement and the tradition of doctrinal debate was keenly vehemently observed. Madhva must have excelled in debating skills, for he defeated numerous Advaitic scholars and is said to have defeated even his own teachers. “Madhva would eventually denounce the arguments of 21 previous commentators of the Brahman-Sutras in his own commentary.”
These three Acaryas were the spiritual genius rocket-scientists of their day and “correctly understanding the Shastras [the ancient Sanskrit texts] was the science of the day. …the best systematic thinking of their times consisted of supporting scriptural revelations with logical explanations.” From their thinking the various schools developed during the mediaeval times. There is much more to learn from this wonderful book, which answers many questions indeed.
In learning more about these three Acaryas who lived in the medieval period, we understand why there is no such thing as Hinduism. Even the word came from the west. Instead we see the various and diverse kingdoms, each with their own languages and inclinations, seeking and forming new expressions of their Love for God. That is all that ever was indeed. All that mankind has ever done, everywhere is to express our Love for the One, our Source. India has expressed this Love uniquely, profusely, beautifully, and mystically seeking Union in all her sacred traditions.
The ancient sacred Sanskrit texts, the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, were never meant to be doctrinal or even religion. They were intended as enquiry – an ongoing always evolving over countless generations, enquiry into man’s relationship with the Cosmos.
In Swami Muni Narayana Prasad’s translation of the Mundaka Upanishad, he expresses a profound understanding relevant to the discussion of the three Acaryas, and could only have emerged from one who has experientially reached and Become the One. He says that even though there are endless conflicting theories, hypotheses and opinions that endeavour to describe the One, these disagreements reflect a lack of understanding of the Real.
Swami Muni Narayana Prasad: “Wherever there is disagreement, therefore, there is surely lack of vision of the Real. One who knows the Real, with no theorizing about it, simply visualizes it as his own Beingness, realizing his inseparable oneness with it, even as a wave finds its oneness with the ocean.”
One last thought from Swami Muni Narayana Prasad and his Narayana Guru, which I found unique and illuminating. Liberation is not ‘going’ anywhere, mukti is not something “attained after the body falls…mukti is the total experiential absorption of the individual into the Total” – in my words into the effulgence that is the One. From there we do not return, as Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita. But this ‘return’ means rather that we do not return to the temporal illusion that we are separate. We remain in this ‘absorption’ released from bondage and ignorance. We never are, and never will be separate from the One. We are That. TAT TVAM ASI.
Neither “that” nor “this” am I,
Nor am I the pure substance of sat.
Attaining the transparency of sat-cit-amrita am I,
And thus inflexibility attained,
Devoid of preference for sat or asat,
One should merge gently, gently in sat-AUM.
- from Atmopadesha-Satakam by Narayana Guru
Three Acaryas and Narayana Guru, The Ongoing Revaluation of Vedanta, by Swami Muni Narayana Prasad; D.K. Printworld Ltd., 2011.
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