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Purvapaksa & Uttarapaksa: An illustration from Ādi Śaṅkara’s Gita Bhashyam


Bharatiyas appear to have  regained their familiarity with the terms pūrvapakṣa and uttarapakṣa but I don’t think many of them would be aware of what was actually involved in this process. What issues were at stake and how were they defended or rebutted? What follows is an essay that I wrote towards fulfilling my Honours requirements but I present it here as an example of pūrvapakṣa and uttarapakṣa by that ancient master of argumentation, Ādi Śaṅkara, from his most controversial book, the Bhagavadgītā-bhāṣya, regarding verse 13.2 from the Bhagavadgītā, which deals with the vexing issue of the identity of īśvara and ātman.


BhG – Bhagavadgītā
BhGŚBh – Bhagavadgītā-bhāṣya of Śaṅkara
BSŚBh – Brahmasūtra-bhāṣya of Śaṅkara


Chapter XIII of the BhG, named kṣetrakṣetrajñayoga, deals with the concepts of kṣetra (field), kṣetrajña (field knower) and the relation between the two. In his commentary on the text, Śaṅkara has written a long gloss on verse 13.2 in which he has propounded the unity of ātman and its identity with īśvara. This hypothesis brings to fore issues concerning the normal experience of the ātman as a saṃsārin (worldly being) subject to kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva (the causal agent of action and the enjoyer of its effect), and the meaningfulness of the śāstras whose purport is to liberate the ātman from this condition. In this essay, I aim to provide an exposition of Śaṅkara’s commentary on verse 13.2. I will show how Śaṅkara contends that avidyā (ignorance) is the basis for the saṃsāritva of the ātman, and how he addresses some of the issues arising from this contention in the form of a debate with an imagined opponent.

Let us begin with the first two verses of Chapter 13.2 in which Kṛṣṇa declares to Arjuna:

idaṃ śarīraṃ kaunteya kṣetram ity abhidhīyate.

etad yo vetti taṃ prāhuḥ kṣetrajña iti tadvidaḥ. (13.1)

kṣetrajñaṃ cāpi māṃ viddhi sarvakṣetreṣu bhārata.

kṣetrakṣetrajñayor jñānaṃ yat taj jñānaṃ mataṃ mama. (13.2)

O Son of Kūntī, this body is called as the kṣetra (field). Its knowers call the one who knows it as the kṣetrajña (field-knower). O Bhārata, know me too as the field-knower in all the fields. In my view, knowledge refers to the knowledge of the field and the field- knower.

Śaṅkara interprets Kṛṣṇa’s claim to be identified as the kṣetrajña (field- knower) in all the kṣetras (fields) as establishing the unity of īśvara and ātman. Since īśvara is understood to be a being who is eternally pure, enlightened and liberated (īśvaro nitya-śuddha-buddha-mukta-svabhāva  -BhGŚBh 1), while the ātman as kartā-bhoktā is regarded as a saṃsārin, their unity poses a problematic implication: either it would make īśvara a saṃsārin, or, in the absence of ātman as saṃsārin, the śāstras dealing with bondage and liberation would become meaningless.

The samsaritva of isvara and atman

In Śaṅkara’s view, the argument that the identity of īśvara and ātman would make the former a saṃsārin is invalid because it arises from the false notion that the latter is a saṃsārin, when, in fact, the ātman appears as if a saṃsārin on account of avidyā. For a better understanding of Śaṅkara’s concept of avidyā we can turn to the introduction of the BSŚBh:

ēvaṁ lakṣaṇam adhyāsaṁ paṇḍitā avidyā iti manyantē

The superimposition (adhyāsa) which is thus characterized, the learned regard as avidyā (BSŚBh 2).

The characterization is explained as pratyagātmani anātmādhyāsaḥ “the superimposition of the non-self (anātma) on the inner self (pratyagātman)” (ibid). In other words, it is the peculiar superimposition (adhyāsa) of the non-self upon the real self that is denoted as avidyā. The BSŚBh famously begins with a definition of such an adhyāsa:

yuṣmadasmatpratyayagōcarayōr viṣayaviṣayiṇōs tamaḥprakāśavad viruddhasvabhāvayōr itarētarabhāvānupapattau siddhāyām; taddharmāṇām api sutarām itarētarabhāvānupapattiḥ ity; ataḥ asmatpratyayagōcarē viṣayiṇi cidātmakē yuṣmatpratyayagōcarasya viṣayasya taddharmāṇāṃ ca adhyāsaḥ; tadviparyayēṇa viṣayiṇas taddharmāṇāṃ ca viṣayē’dhyāsō mithy ēti bhavituṃ yuktam.

tathāpy anyōnyasminn anyōnyātmakatām anyōnyadharmāś ca adhyasy etaretarāvivekēna atyantaviviktayōr dharmadharmiṇōḥ mithyājñānanimittaḥ satyānṛtē mithunīkṛtya ahamidam mamēdam iti naisargikō’yaṁ lōkavyavahāraḥ. (BSŚBh 1)

Since it is established that the mutual identity (itaretarabhāva) of the subject, which is the range of what is perceived as “I” (asmat), and the object, which is the range of what is perceived as “you” (yuṣmat), whose essential natures are as contradictory as light and darkness, cannot be reasonable; and the mutual identity of their attributes (dharma) even less so; therefore, the superimposition (adhyāsa) of the object, which is the range of what is perceived as “you” and its attributes, on the subject, which is the range of what is perceived as “I”, whose essential nature is consciousness (cit); and conversely to that, the superimposition of the subject and its attributes on the object, must be false.

In spite of that, having mutually superimposed each other’s essences and each other’s properties, by failing to discriminate one from the other, possessing as its cause the false knowledge of the attributes (dharma) and its bearer (dharmin) who are absolutely distinct, having combined truth and falsehood, there occurs the natural worldly behaviour (lokavyavahāra), expressed as “I am this” and “this is mine”.

In other words, the saṃsārin beings ordinarily denoted by the ego-sense (ahaṃ- pratyaya), such as the jīva (living being), puruṣa (person) and so on, are apparitions arising from a superimposition of the non-self, such as the gross body and the mental processes, on the pratyagātman, the real self, which is caitanya (pure consciousness). The saṃsāritva of the ātman which constitutes its identity as the agent (kartṛ) and enjoyer (bhoktṛ), and hence as a participant in cause (hetu) and effect (phala), is the outcome of such a superimposition called avidyā. The ātman is not in reality a saṃsārin and so īśvara too does not become one through identification with it. Thus, Śaṅkara explains Kṛṣṇa’s instruction, “Know me as the kṣetrajña in all the kṣetras,” as follows:

kṣetrajñaṃ … māṃ parameśvaram asaṃsāriṇaṃ viddhi. sarvakṣētrēṣu yaḥ kṣētrajñaḥ brahmādistambaparyantānēkakṣētrōpādhipravibhaktaḥ taṁ nirastasarvōpādhibhēdaṁ sadasadādiśabdapratyayāgōcaraṁ viddhi. (BhGŚBh 189)

Know the kṣetrajña … to be me, the asaṃsārin parameśvara. The meaning is that in all the kṣetras, the kṣetrajña who has become differentiated in the form of a multitude of kṣetra upādhis (bodily signifiers), from Brahmā down to a clump of grass, know him as one who is beyond all the distinct upādhis and beyond the range of verbal conceptions (śabda-pratyaya) such as existent and non-existent.

Thus, Śaṅkara’s proposition is that although īśvara is the kṣetrajña in all the kṣetras, the latter are merely his upādhis and he remains distinct from them. It is implicit that īśvara is not a personal God but analogous to the impersonal caitanya that has become apparently differentiated in the form of jīvas (living principle) in the various bodies. As Kṛṣṇa himself states later: “it is but an eternal aspect (sanātana aṃśa) of mine that has become living (jīvabhūta) in the biosphere (jīvaloka)” (BhG 15.3).

First-person and Third-person superimpositions

While later Advaitin scholars have grappled with the ontological status or modalities of avidyā, whether it was real or unreal, its relation to brahman, and so on (Kalpan 2007:178-9), Śaṅkara himself anticipates an issue of a different nature. He has explained the process of avidyā using examples from ordinary life such as superimposition between a man and a post, a rope and a snake, and so on. However, these involve, what I would call, a third-person superimposition, in which an external knower (jñātṛ) confuses between two knowables (jñeya). On the other hand, avidyā refers to a first-person superimposition (again, my term) between the ātman as knower and the anātman as the knowable.

sthāṇupuruṣau jñeyāveva santau jñātrā anyonyasminn adhyastau avidyayā dehātmanos tu jñeyajñātror evetaretarādhyāsa iti na samo dṛṣṭānta. (BhGŚBh 191)

Śaṅkara’s point is that just as third-person superimpositions do not involve a real exchange of dharmas between the objects confused for each other, the same would be true of first-person superimpositions. The opponent, however, contends that the analogy does not hold because of the differences between the natures of the objects involved in the two kinds of superimpositions. Śaṅkara offers four arguments to this objection, two of which occur in the BSŚBh and two in the BhGŚBh.

In the BSŚBh, Śaṅkara frames the objection thus: Since the pratyagātman is not a knowable (aviṣaya), how can the knowable (viṣaya) and its properties become superimposed on it? It is only in case of a knowable before us that a superimposition on it of another knowable can occur whereas the pratyagātman cannot be a knowable since it cannot be perceived as a “you” (yuṣmat-pratyayāpeta). In response, we have Śaṅkara’s most famous contention:

na tāvad ayam ekāntena aviṣayaḥ asmatpratyayaviṣayatvāt aparokṣatvāc ca pratyagātmaprasiddheḥ

First of all, it is not absolutely unknowable, since the pratyagātman is evident on account of the ‘I’-sense and its immediacy (BSŚBh 2).

Secondly, he points out that it is not a rule that superimposition can occur only with respect to objects in front of us. Although space (ākāśa) is not visible, children superimpose the dirt in the lower levels of the atmosphere upon it.

In the gloss on verse 13.2 of the BhG, Śaṅkara argues that even if the relation between the objects involved in the dṛṣṭānta “example” (the third-person superimposition) and the dārṣṭāntika “what is explained by the example” (the first-person superimposition) are different, the point is that in both cases ignorance is the cause of the superimposition.

avidyādhyāsamātraṃ hi dṛṣṭāntadārṣtāntikayoḥ sādharmyaṃ vivakṣitam. (BhGŚBh 191)

In this sense the analogy holds. In my view, the significance of this argument in Śaṅkara’s philosophy can be understood by considering the mutual superimposition between a rope and a snake. Since the mutual superimposition is on account of some occlusive factor such as poor light, the fear of the snake cannot be fully resolved through actions such as attacking it or trying to protect oneself from it. In fact, such actions will turn out to be counter-productive because the more one engages in them, the more one reinforces the delusion that the rope is in fact a snake. At the most they may provide some temporary relief but the ultimate resolution for the problem of the snake can only be the removal of the occlusive factor, in this case the poor illumination, which will reveal it as a rope. In the same way, the issues concerning the ātman as a saṃsārin being cannot be mitigated by undertaking actions which can, in the long run, only serve to affirm the falsehood of the saṃsāritva of the ātman. Only the removal of avidyā (ignorance), under which condition occurs the mutual superimposition of the body and the ātman, and their characteristic dharmas, can bring to an end the alleged saṃsāritva of the ātman. In this practical sense, too, the analogy becomes meaningful.

In order to understand Śaṅkara’s fourth argument, we need to familiarize ourselves with the point of view of his imagined opponent which becomes implicit from the dialogue.

Two kinds of dualists

Śaṅkara’s imagined opponent is a dvaitin and a dehātma-vyatirikta-vādin, who holds that the ātman is distinct from the body as the kartā-bhoktā-jñātā (doer, enjoyer and knower), the agent and experiencer of sukha-duḥkha-moha-icchā (contentment, discontentment, confusion, desire) and so on. He should be distinguished from the dehātmavādin dvaitin, who holds that the ātman is identical with the body though distinct from īśvara. For the dehātma-vyatirikta-vādin, the ātman is distinct from the body in that, unlike the former, the latter is subject to the six modifications (ṣaḍvikāra) including old age and death. He is also not unfamiliar with the idea of superimposition. In his view, the dehātma-vādin comes to grief because he superimposes on the ātman the six modifications occurring in the body. In the view of the dehātma-vyatirikta-vādin, Arjuna would be a dehātma-vādin who is taught precisely this lesson by Kṛṣṇa, when he is instructed that the ātman does not undergo birth, old age, death, and so on. For Śaṅkara, the dehātma-vyatirikta-vādin’s view would be relatively superior but in need of further development. Inasmuch as kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva-jñātṛtva are knowables and one can imagine a self as doer, an enjoyer and a knower, these too become qualities that belong to the kṣetra and which get superimposed upon the kṣetrajña through ignorance. He is thus extending dehātma-vyatirikta-vādin’s point further, when he argues that:

yadi hi jñeyasya dehādeḥ dharmāḥ kecana ātmanātmano bhavanty avidyādhyāropitā jarāmaraṇādyas tu na bhavantīti viśeṣahetur vaktavyaḥ. na bhavantīty asty anumānam avidyādhyāropitatvāj jarādivad iti heyatvāt upādeyatvāc cety ādi. (BhGŚBh 191)

If the dharmas, such as contentment (sukha), discontentment (duḥkha), confusion (moha), desire (icchā) and so on, of the knowable, [that is of] the kṣetra such as the body, belong to the knower, then a special cause (hetu) must be declared as to [how] some dharmas of the knowable kṣetra [can] belong to the ātman naturally, whereas others such as old age and death, which are imposed through ignorance, do not. The inference is that they cannot [belong naturally to the ātman] because they are superimposed [on the ātman] by ignorance, like old age and so on, because they are characterized by the potential of being grasped (upādeyatva) or relinquished (heyatva), and so on.

Śaṅkara is disputing that a distinction between the mental and the material does not hold and therefore either all the dharmas belong to the body or all of them belong to the ātman. However, all of them cannot belong to the ātman since the presence in it of gross material changes such as old age and death would make it lacking in caitanya (sentience), an outcome utterly unacceptable to the dehātma-vyatirkta-vādin opponent. It therefore follows that all of them, including the kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva-jñātṛtva (doership, enjoyership and knowership) associated with the mental dharmas, belong to the body and get collectively superimposed upon the ātman due to ignorance.

Two kinds of pseudo-pundits

Corresponding to the dehātma-vādin and the dehātma-vyatirkta-vādin, Śaṅkara cautions against two types of pseudo-pundits. First, those who perceive the ātman in the kṣetra, i.e., in the body, leading to claims of “I am thus” (ahamevam) and “this is mine” (mamaivedam). In Śaṅkara’s view, if they were to realise [the ātman as the] immutable (avikriya) kṣetrajña, then they would not hanker after action (karma) and enjoyment (bhoga) thinking “may this be mine” since action and enjoyment are mutable (vikriya). Such being the case, the fool hankering for fruits undertakes action. The enlightened person, on the other hand, who perceives the ātman as immutable, finding no reason to undertake actions (pravṛtti) due to the absence of any hankering for results, and ceasing the activities of the aggregate of the body and the organs, approaches nivṛtti “cessation of action” (BhGŚBh 194).

The second variety of pseudo-pundits holds that kṣetrajña is īśvara and kṣetra is his sphere, different from him. The ātman, on the other hand, is a saṃsārin subject to happiness and suffering. Liberation from saṃsāra is its goal, which is accomplished by abiding in the essential form (svarūpa) of the kṣetrajña īśvara, having gained a direct experience of him by concentration (dhyāna) and by the thorough knowledge of the kṣetra and kṣetrajña. In Śaṅkara’s view, the one who understand thus and the one who teaches thus, is not a kṣetrajña [i.e, an enlightened person]. Rather, he is a degraded teacher (paṇḍitāpasada), who thinks he renders saṃsāra, mokṣa and the śāstras meaningful. He is a destroyer of the self (ātmahā), who is deluded himself and deludes others as well. From not belonging to a tradition (saṃpradāya) engaged in ascertaining the meaning of the śāstras, he falsifies śruti and imagines what is not contained therein (ibid: 195).

The Meaninglessness of the śāstras

If the saṃsāritva of the ātman is not ultimately real but the outcome of a superimposition of the dharmas of the anātman on it, caused by ignorance, then saṃsāra too is not ultimately real and the śāstras teaching liberation from it become meaningless. The opponent argues that:

a saṃsāra characterised by happiness, sorrow and its causes is apprehended by perception. And from the apprehension of the unevenness of the world, a saṃsāra having dharma and adharma as its cause, is inferred (ibid: 190).

Śaṅkara does not dispute this point, from which we may conclude that he is not denying the ordinary experience of the world as saṃsāra. Rather, he appears to be suggesting that the problem of saṃsāra cannot be resolved through actions prescribed in the śāstras as they presuppose the ātman as doer, enjoyer and knower and thus reaffirm avidyā. However, this does not make the śāstras completely meaningless, just that the destruction of avidyā remains beyond their scope. But as far as people are operating within the realm of avidyā, the śāstras are meaningful. One might contend that such an argument is hardly satisfactory as it does not invest the śāstras with any cosmic significance but Śaṅkara’s point is that this is a defect applicable to all ātmavādin schools. Even in case of dvaitavāda, the śāstras can only remain meaningful until liberation is attained, after which they cease to be of value. True, the opponent concedes, but:

The dvaitins believe that bondage and liberation are real states (vastubhūta) in an ultimate (pāramārthika) sense. Therefore, the meaningfulness of śāstras pertains to a real state of things in regards to which it teaches what should and should not be done along with the associated means. On the other hand, for the advaitins, because duality is not real in an ultimate sense since it is produced by avidyā, considering that neither the state of bondage nor the [individuality of the] ātman are real in an ultimate sense, the śāstras become meaningless because they do not pertain to any (real) object (BhGŚBh 192-193).

Śaṅkara (ibid: 193) responds that different states of the ātman are not tenable. First of all, if two states – bondage and liberation – were possible for the ātman, then they would have to be simultaneous or sequential. The former is impossible for the two states are mutually contradictory. In the latter case, they would have to be caused or uncaused. If uncaused, transition from bondage to liberation would be impossible. If caused, then it would require an external factor and therefore, being contingent on it, would not be true in an ultimate sense. Moreover, considering the sequential nature of bondage and liberation, bondage would have an end but no beginning, whereas liberation would have a beginning but no end. Both these are contrary to pramaṇa. And it is not possible for an object moving from one state to another to be regarded as constant (nitya). In order to remove the fault of inconstancy, a (real) difference between states of bondage and liberation cannot be upheld. Therefore, the onus of removing the fault arising from the meaninglessness of the śāstras lies with the dualists as well and is not the sole responsibility of the non-dualists.

Śaṅkara (ibid: 192) explains that only two kinds of people do not undertake the duties enjoined by the śāstras: the knower of brahman (brahmavit), who sees the unity of iśvara and ātman, and the one who does not believe in the reality of the ātman (nairātmyavādin) contending “there is no world beyond.” However, in accordance with established practice, those who have inferred the reality of the ātman by the fact that the study (śravaṇa) of the śāstras consisting of injunctions and prohibitions would become otherwise unreasonable, who are unacquainted with the essential nature of the ātman, in whom has arisen a hankering (tṛṣṇā) for the results of actions, undertake them with due faith. Therefore, the śāstras are not meaningless. They remain significant for the ignorant people who imagine their selves in cause (hetu) and effect (phala), which are different from the self. The śāstras, consisting of prescriptions and proscriptions, are not meant only for the enlightened (vidvat) and discriminative (vivekin) one who sees oneself as different from cause and effect.

In that case, the opponent fears that the śāstras would become meaningless when, from observing enlightened persons (vivekin) not undertaking actions, their followers would also desist from them. In Śaṅkara’s view, this is most unlikely because enlightenment (viveka) arises in rare cases only:

anekeṣu hi prāṇiṣu kaścid eva vivekī syāt yathedānīm. na ca vivekinam anuvartante mūḍhā rāgādidoṣatantratvāt pravṛtteḥ abhicaraṇādau ca pravṛttidarśanāt svābhāvyāc ca pravṛtteḥ. (BhGŚBh 194)

Among a multitude of beings, only a few become enlightened, just as it is presently. And fools do not emulate an enlightened person because their actions are dependent on faults such as attachment (rāga) and so on, are seen as concerned with magic spells (abhicaraṇa) and so on, and arise from their essential nature (svabhāva).

Whose avidya is it?

In Śaṅkara’s view, the world of natural experience (yathā-dṛṣṭa-viṣaya) characterized as saṃsāra is merely avidyā. Only the kṣetrajña is free from avidyā and its effects. False knowledge (mithyā-jñānam) cannot taint the ultimate reality (paramārtha-vastu). Water from a mirage, by its lubricity, cannot make arid soil swampy. In the same way, avidyā cannot affect the kṣetrajña in any way. The concept of avidyā puts a strange twist on the traditional notion of saṃsāra. The kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva (doership-enjoyership) of the ātman, which is the essence of its saṃsāritva, becomes understandable in this hypothesis as the product of avidyā. Hence, it is easy to misunderstand that the ātman becomes a saṃsārin on account of avidyā. The jñātṛtva (knowership) of the ātman could be regarded as the core essence of its saṃsāritva i.e., the ātman becomes a saṃsārin because it possesses avidyā and consequently has to suffer the faults (doṣas) of the kṣetra. However, such an approach entails an incorrect understanding of avidyā. Instead of using the concept as a solution to the problem of saṃsāra, it is a way of reframing it in new terms, for the ātman neither possesses avidyā nor is it affected by the faults (doṣas) of the kṣetras on account of it. In this section, I will elucidate Saṅkara’s view on the relation between the ātman and avidyā.

Śaṅkara (ibid: 192) explains that:

avidyā is not something that one can possess because it is a negative apprehension (tāmasa pratyaya) since it bears the nature of concealment (āvaraṇātmaka). The three kinds of avidyās are: viparīta-grāhaka (false perception), saṃśaya-utpādaka (doubtful perception) or agrahaṇātmaka (non-perception).

I interpret this to mean that avidyā involves the apprehension of an object such that: one is either unable to apprehend it (non-perception); or one apprehends it but the apprehension is not free of doubt regarding its identity (doubtful perception); or one apprehends it as what it is not (false perception).

Since, avidyā ceases when the light of reason (viveka-prakāśa) dawns, the three types of avidyā are perceived only when there exist defects such as timira (darkness, blindness) whose nature is concealment.

So, for example, the confusion between the rope and the snake occurs not because the perceiver “possesses” ignorance but on account of external factors such as bad light or poor sight. Thus, Śaṅkara (ibid) argues that:

avidyā cannot be a dharma of the perceiver because the faults such as false perception and so on are found in the instrument of perception such as the eye. For, when the eye is cured of its blindness then the perceiver is no longer affected by the defect. Further, since false perception and so on, are cognisable (saṃvedya) they cannot be a dharma of the perceiver, the way light is of a lamp, because the cognisable is always different from oneself. Finally, the possession of faults such as avidyā in the state of liberation (kaivalya), which involves a separation from all instruments of cognitions, is not admitted by any school. So, if avidyā was a dharma of the ātman, like heat is of fire, then it could never be separated from it.

But then, whose avidyā is it? Śaṅkara’s answer to this question seems artful and evasive, and is best understood in the form of his debate with the opponent (ibid: 195-6):

Ś: Avidyā belongs to the one “whose it is seen” but the question “whose is it seen?” is meaningless; for if avidyā is seen then the one whose it is, would also be seen; and if the one whose it is, is seen, the question “whose avidyā?” is futile. Just as, when one apprehends the owner of the cows, it makes no sense to ask “whose cows?”

O: This is not a proper example because when the cow and its owner are directly seen their relation is also perceived. But avidyā and its possessor are not seen that way, so the question is not meaningless.

Ś: But if the possessor of avidyā is not seen, then of what use is the knowledge avidyā’s relation to him?

O: Avidyā should be removed (parihartavya) as it is the source of calamity (anartha).

Ś: The one who possesses avidyā will remove it.

O: Well, avidyā is mine.

Ś: In that case you know avidyā and yourself as the one possessing it.

O: I know, but not through direct perception.

Ś: In that case, if you know by inference, then how is the connection known? For it is not possible to know at that very moment the relation between you, the knower, and avidyā, which is the object of knowledge, since the knower is wholly engaged as the subject of avidyā. It is not possible for there to be a knower who grasps the relation between the knower and avidyā, and a distinct knowledge having that as its subject, for it would lead to an infinite regress. If the relation with the object of knowledge is to be known by the knower as well, then another knower would have to be imagined, and another for that, and so on so that an infinite regress becomes unavoidable.

This dialogue is unnecessarily convoluted but its import is fairly straightforward. Perhaps, Śaṅkara is just having a go at his opponents. The question “whose avidyā is it” or rather “who is the subject of avidyā?” is meaningless because subject-hood only arises subsequent to avidyā. The very concept of knowership (jñātṛtva), which is the basis of any knowledge including that of avidyā and its possessor, is possible only in the context of avidyā. No subject-hood exists outside avidyā from which vantage point certain knowledge can be obtained about avidyā or its possessor. So even when the opponent says “avidyā is mine,” which is to say “I am the knower (jñātā) of myself as possessed of avidyā,” he is already operating under the influence of avidyā! The idea that knowership (jñātṛtva) is itself the consequence of avidyā is clarified below.

Since avidyā is an abstract concept, the question “whose avidyā is it?” requires further unpacking. Since avidyā involves a mutual superimposition (adhyāsa) between the perceiver and the perceived, what is being interrogated is the identity of the being who is doing the superimposition. In third-person superimpositions that involve a perceiver confusing between two perceived objects, the ignorance belongs to the perceiver i.e., it is clear that it is the perceiver who is doing the superimposition. But in first-person superimpositions that involve the perceiver and the perceived, to whom does it belong i.e., who is the agent of the superimposition? To the opponent, it appears as if it would be himself, i.e., the perceiver (just as it is in the case of third-person superimpositions) but as Śaṅkara shows this is not borne out by either pramāṇa – perception or inference. What Śaṅkara does not mention here (but is clear from the next passage) is that the perceiver, as the agent of knowledge, cannot be the cause of avidyā because it is itself the consequence of it; in the absence of avidyā it would not possess any agency, even that of a knowing subject (jñātṛtva). What Śaṅkara does reiterate in conclusion is the incorrectness of trying to remove avidyā as if it was a defect one possessed:

The object of knowledge (jñeya), avidyā or whatever else, is the object of knowledge (jñeya); and the subject of knowledge (jñātṛ) is the subject of knowledge (jñātṛ) and can never become the object of knowledge (jñeya). This being the case, the subject of knowledge (jñātṛ kṣetrajña) can never be tainted by avidyā, suffering (duḥkha), etc.

yadi punar avidyā jñeyā anyad vā jñeyaṃ jñeyam eva. tathā jñātā api jñātaiva na jñeyaṃ bhavati. yadā caivam avidyāduḥkhitatvādyair na jñātuḥ kṣetrajñasya kiṅcit duṣyati. (BhGŚBh 196)

In other words, the concept of avidyā is like the proverbial raft that must be eventually abandoned. The opponent is obsessed with removing (parihāra) it but in Śaṅkara’s view this would be neither possible, for it is the very foundation on which the removing subject (parihartṛ) stands; nor necessary, for the knowledge that the eternally pure and immutable ātman cannot be affected by faults of the kṣetra should really be enough.

The final objection of the opponent is that the knowership (vijñātṛtva) of a field (kṣetra) possessed of faults (doṣa) is precisely the problem. No, replies Śaṅkara, because:

it is the immutable (avikriya) essence of consciousness (vijñāna-svarūpa) that is regarded metaphorically as the knower (vijñātā).

vijñānasvarūpasyaiva avikriyasya vijñātṛtvopacārāt. (BhGŚBh 196)

He provides the analogy of fire being metaphorically attributed the action of heating (taptikriyā) merely on account of its heat. The point appears to be that fire is not the agent of heating but because heat is its essential nature whatever comes in contact with it gets heated. In the same way, that immutable being which is vijñāna-svarūpa (possesses knowledge as its essence) makes known whatever comes into its orbit but that does not make it, by the same token as the fire, an agent of knowing (vijñātā). Śaṅkara then concludes that action (kriyā), cause (kāraka) and effect (phala) do not occur in the ātman as its essential nature but are metaphorically attributed to it because they are superimposed upon it through avidyā.

avidyādhyāropitair eva kriyākārakādi ātmany upacaryate. (BhGŚBh 196)

Here, Śaṅkara appears to be warning that the realisation that saṃsāra is essentially avidyā is wasted if one simply reframes the problem of saṃsāra in terms of avidyā. This is precisely what the opponent has done: shifted the cause of the ātman’s suffering from its kartṛtva-bhoktṛtva (doership-enjoyership) within saṃsāra to its jñātṛtva (knowership) within avidyā. And Śaṅkara is rejecting precisely this misconception – no kind of subject-hood is inherent in the ātman, including the subject-hood of a knower; any kind of subject-hood perceived in the ātman is the outcome of avidyā.


In his commentary on the BhG, we find that Śaṅkara has commented on some verses quite elaborately, using them as an opportunity to expound his philosophy. Although the term avidyā, especially in the Śaṅkarite sense of an itaretara-adhyāsa (mutual superimposition) has not been used in the BhG, where the understanding of a worldly delusion is articulated in terms of īśvara’s māyā, Śaṅkara has adeptly used verse 13-2 to make his concept of avidyā critical to understanding the relation between the kṣetrajña īśvara and the kṣetras. By equating the kṣetrajña īśvara with the ātman, Śaṅkara creates a predicament for which he offers avidyā as a solution. The ātman, in its capacity as the kartā (doer) of actions (karma) and as the bhoktā (enjoyer) of its effects (kārya), is a saṃsārin, whereas īśvara is the perfect being existing beyond saṃsāra. By equating these two, either īśvara becomes a saṃsārin and thus imperfect, or the ātman ceases to be one, in which case saṃsāra itself becomes non-existent, and the śāstras that teach bondage and liberation become meaningless.

Using avidyā, Śaṅkara shows that neither īśvara nor the ātman are saṃsārins in a real sense. Although īśvara is the kṣetrajña in all the kṣetras, he is to be understood as distinct from them, and though the ātman is perceived as an embodied being, it is separate from the body. The condition of them being saṃsārin becomes possible only through avidyā, on account of which there is a mutual superimposition leading to the dharma of the ātman, being caitanya, and those of the body, such as old age, death, happiness, sorrow and so on, which are the elements of saṃsāra, being perceived in each other. Consequently, the ātman is misconceived as a saṃsārin and therefore as different from īśvara, and an identity between the two raises the issue of īśvara becoming a saṃsārin. However, superimposition caused by avidyā cannot effect a real exchange in the dharmas of the two objects.

This makes avidyā the central point of the discussion and is presented as the very nature of saṃsāra (avidyāmātram saṃsāra ibid: 194). Śaṅkara rebuffs the repercussions this has for the meaningfulness of the śāstras by restricting their utility to unenlightened people who are desirous of the fruits realised from actions and claiming it to be a universal problem for all doctrines that endorse the reality of the self (ātmavādin). Avidyā itself is described as an occlusive power that is neither an attribute (dharma) of the kṣetrajña nor of the kṣetra but one that produces a mutual superimposition between them. As a result, the properties of the former are perceived in the latter, leading to the notions of “I am this” and “this is mine.” In the same way, the faults (doṣas) of the latter, such as the experiences that constitute saṃsāra, become perceived in the former, making it appear as a saṃsārin.

As the definition of avidyā found in the introduction to the BSŚBh shows, Śaṅkara treats it as a matter of fact borne out by normal experience, whose existence does not require any further proof. It is self-evident that a subject and an object of experience would have to be distinct from each other for the experiential event to occur. In spite of this, if the subject holds, and quite intuitively so, that the object is its own self, as one would maintain with regards to the body “I am this,” then some ignorance is at work here.

In cases of third-person superimposition, where a perceiver mutually superimposes two perceived objects, a subject possessed of ignorance can be identified. But in a first-person superimposition, where the perceiver and the perceived object are mutually superimposed, then no subject possessed of ignorance can be identified. So the question “whose avidyā is it?” becomes meaningless. In fact, no kind of reflection on avidyā is possible; rather, it would be counter-productive, for the subject-hood of the self, that would be the pre-requisite for any reflection, is itself a product of avidyā. In other words, avidyā cannot become the object of reflection of any subject because the subject-hood of the latter is itself consequent to its entry into avidyā. The whole point of the avidyā thesis is to teach that the ātman is not a saṃsārin in the ultimate sense and therefore any effort expended to bring about a cessation of saṃsāra is futile. To then endeavour to bring about a cessation of avidyā, as the opponent desires to do, would be to repeat the same error, to fail to realise that the ātman is the immutable being whose essential form is immutable consciousness (avikriya vijñānasvarūpa) and not the knowing subject (vijñātṛ) afflicted by avidyā.

The conclusion of this long debate expounding avidyā as the basis of saṃsāra and its peculiar nature, against which no effort can prevail, is to confirm the futility of karma as a means of liberation from saṃsāra. This agrees with the fundamental teaching that Śaṅkara attributes to the BhG in the introduction:

gītāśāstrasya saṃkṣepataḥ prayojanaṃ paraṃ niḥśreyasaṃ sahetukasya saṃsārasya atyantoparamalakṣaṇam. tacca sarvakarmasaṃnyāsapūrvakād ātmajñānaniṣṭhārūpād dharmād bhavati.

Briefly, the purpose of the Gītā-śāstra is supreme liberation characterised by the final cessation of saṃsāra along with its causes. And that arises from the dharma that has the form of steadfastness in self-knowledge preceded by the renunciation of all actions.

We can see that Śaṅkara has arrived at this understanding from his conceptualisation of saṃsāra as avidyā. And this is reinforced by the gloss on verse 13-2 at the end of which the imagined opponent infers from the exposition of avidyā that if the inherence (ātmatā) of action (kriyā), cause (kāraka) and effect (phala) in the ātman does not arise from itself (svataḥ) and is superimposed by avidyā, then it can only be concluded (prāpta) that actions should be undertaken by the ignorant and not by the enlightened. Śaṅkara concurs: satyameva prāptam ‘truly that is the conclusion.’ And promising to elaborate further in his gloss on later verses, ends the topic.


Primary Sources

Bhagavadgītā-Śāṅkarabhāṣya. 2011 (1929). Works of Śaṅkarācārya in original Sanskrit (Vol. II), Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers.

Brahmasūtra-Śāṅkarabhāṣya. 2012 (1985). Works of Śaṅkarācārya in original Sanskrit (Vol. III), Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers.

Secondary Literature

Ingalls, D. 1953. Śaṁkara on the Question: Whose Is Avidyā? In: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Apr., 1953), pp. 69-72.

Kaplan, S. 2007. Vidyā and Avidyā: Simultaneous and Coterminous?: A Holographic Model to Illuminate the Advaita Debate. In: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 178-203.

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