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January 31, 2008

Reflections on Sri Sankaracarya's Viveka Chudamani, Part 1

One of top five favorite books of all time is Sri Sankaracarya's Viveka Chudamani (Crest Jewel of Discrimination). I have read various translations of the book between 17-20 times over the past 10 years. In one's spiritual journey, there are just certain books that speak to you a very special and personal manner. The Viveka Chudamani is just one of those books for me. When you find one of those kinds of books for yourself, treasure it and take lots of time to digest and intimate yourself with it. When you build a continued and intimate relationship with a classic work of spiritual power, you will find yourself guided and supported by that piece of work in the most surprising kinds of ways.

Adi Sankaracarya (686-718 A.D.) is considered to be one of the most monumental spiritual figures in India. He is said to have been an academic and spiritual prodigy from a very young age and though he died at the very young age of 32, he revolutionized the way that millions of people today practice and live their spiritual lives. He was a proponent of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualistic Vedic philosophy), which is considered by many to be the heart and soul of the entire Vedic religion and culture. Sankaracarya's contribution was not only many seminal interpretations of classic spiritual texts, but he also was the main force in organizing the major monastic orders of India. This was the first time in the history of India that monasticism was organized and his system still exists very powerfully today.

Sri Sankaracarya's writings and philosophy has had a major impact and influence on countless people. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois considers Sri Sankaracarya as one of his main philosophical influences.

In this entry and in following installments, I will share my favorite parts of this classic text, which is considered by many to be an expression of the essence of the Vedas. The book is comprised of 580 verses. Much of the book is a dialogue between a realized master and his pupil. In this dialogue, there is an involved discussion on the nature of the process of spiritual liberation and realization.

The first part of the book that struck me particularly was in verses 14-33, in which Sankaracarya describes the essential qualifications of an aspirant after the Truth, one who seeks full Self realization. This description is the most concise and direct description I have ever encountered.

The following is an excerpt of those verses from the translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood:

Success in attaining the goal depends chiefly up the qualifications of the seeker. Suitable time, place and other such circumstances are aids to its attainment.

Therefore, let him who would know the Atman (the individualized expression of pure consciousness, which is limited in the unrealized person by conditioned patterns of thought and emotion) which is the Reality practice discrimination (Viveka). But first he must approach a teacher who is a perfect knower of Brahman (the absolute and transcendent expression of pure consciousness), and whose compassion is as vast as the ocean itself.

The Disciple

A MAN should be intelligent and learned, with great powers of comprehension, and overcome doubts by the exercise of his reason. One who has these qualifications is fitted for knowledge of the Atman.

He alone may be considered qualified to seek Brahman who has discrimination (Viveka), whose mind is turned away from all enjoyments (Maya or illusion), who possesses tranquillity (Sama), and the kindred virtues and has a longing for liberation (Mumuksuta).

In this connection, the sages have spoken of four qualifications for attainment. When these are present, devotion to the Reality will become complete. When they are absent, it will fail.

First is mentioned the discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal (the real and the unreal). Next comes the renunciation (Vairagra) of the enjoyment of the ,fruits of action here and hereafter. Then comes the six treasures of virtue, beginning with tranquillity (Sama). And last certainly, is the longing for liberation (Mumuksuta).

Brahman is real, the universe is unreal. A firm conviction that this is so is called discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal.

Renunciation is the giving-up of all the pleasures of the eyes, the ears and the other senses, the giving-up of all the objects of transitory enjoyment, the giving-up of the desire for a physical body as well as the highest kind of spirit-body of a god.

To detach the mind from all object things by continually seeing their imperfection, and to direct it steadfastly toward Brahman, its goal-this is called tranquillity.

To detach both kinds of sense organs-those of perception (the eyes, the ears, the skin, the tongue, the nose) and those of action (the legs/feet, the arms/hands, the vocal cords, the organs of procreation, the organs of elimination)- from objective things, and to withdraw them to rest in their respective centers-this is called self-control (Dama).

True mental poise or self-withdrawal (Uparati) is in not allowing the mind be affected by external stimuli.

To endure all kinds of afflictions without rebellion, complaint or lament-this is called forbearance (Titiksa).

A firm conviction, based on an intellectual understanding that the teachings of the scriptures and of one's master are true-this is called by the sages the faith (Shraddha) which leads to the realization of the Reality.

To concentrate the intellect repeatedly on the pure Brahman and to keep it fixed there always-this is called self-surrender (Samadhana). This does not mean soothing the mind, like a baby with idle thoughts.

Longing for liberation (Mumuksuta) is the longing to be free from the fetters forged by ignorance-beginning with the ego-sense and so on, down to the physical body itself-through the realization of one's true nature.

Even though this longing for liberation may be present in a slight or moderate degree, it will grow more intense through the grace of the teacher, and through the practice of renunciation and of virtues such as tranquillity, etc: And it will bear fruit.

When renunciation and longing for liberation are present in an intense degree within a man, then the practice of tranquillity and the other virtues will bear fruit and lead to the goal.

Where renunciation and longing for liberation are weak, tranquillity and the other virtues are a mere appearance, like a mirage in the desert.

Among all means of liberation, devotion (Bhakti) is supreme. To seek earnestly to know one's true nature-this is said to be devotion.

In other words, devotion or Bhakti can be defined as the search for the reality of one's own Atman. The seeker after the reality of the Atman, who possesses the above mentioned qualifications, should approach the illumined teacher from whom he can learn the way to liberation from all bondage.

** End of excerpt **

I have reflected on this excerpt many, many times. Each time that I do, I find a new perspective to view the spiritual life. There is such depth and clarity in what Sankaracarya is saying. Many of the essential principles of Vedanta are encapsulated in the Four Qualifications. I recommend that you use them to guide your practice, as a context within which to hold what you do and how you do it within your practice.

To be continued....

Hari OM!

Govinda Kai



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Adi Sankaracarya (788-820 A.D.)
We Are Light
Reflections on Sri Sankaracarya's Viveka Chudamani, Part 1
Make Sure It Isn't About Denial


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