The Introduction to Shankara’s Brahma Sutra Commentary

The Brahma Sutras (also entitled the Vedanta Sutras), are a group of 550 aphorisms, divided into four books of four chapters each, but totalling only about six pages. The brevity is intentional, allowing the text to be easily memorized. Some of the sutras deal with certain specific Upanishadic texts and claim, against other earlier interpretations, that these deal with Brahman (or the Absolute) and not with any side-issues. Some refute non-Upanishadic philosophies. Some discuss the nature of the individual as revealed in the Upanishads. Some discuss the means to liberation, and others, finally, the nature of liberation.

Every Vedantic commentator with pretensions to cover the ground completely had to comment on the Brahma Sutras. Shankara’s own commentary fills two volumes in translation and must be accounted his most important work. The most important part of it is the commentary on the first four sutras, running to forty-seven pages in translation. All who seek to know Shankara’s work should read these pages.

The four sutras in question are introductory in character, and Shankara uses them to state freely the main principles of his own system. Furthermore, the works of the most important school of his followers, known as the Vivarana school, consist almost entirely of sub-commentaries and sub-commentaries on sub-commentaries, to this part of his Brahma Sutra commentary. In other words, the development of his doctrine which took place in later times was really built up out of this part of his writings alone, and the topics that are central to these pages became, in course of time, the central topics of Advaita. Our immediate concern, however, is only with the nine pages of introductory matter at the beginning, known as the adhyasa bhashya or ‘opening section of the commentary establishing the fact of superimposition’.

What, then, is superimposition? And why is it important to Shankara to establish the fact of its existence? He himself gives a sort of definition of it in the opening passage under consideration. He says: ‘Well, what is this superimposition? It is the appearance of something that has been seen before, in a place where it does not belong, somewhat in the form of a memory.’ He then lists a few philosophical explanations of the process found amongst the schools of philosophy current in his day, and says that all these explanations agree in regarding superimposition as the appearance of a quality where it does not belong.

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This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.