Prabodhasudhakara [Summary]

Prabodhasudhakara of Adi Sankara
The Ocean of the Nectar of Enlightenment
A Summary
By S. N. Sastri


Prabodhasudhakara is one of the lesser-known works of Sri Sankaracharya. It consists of 257 verses divided into 19 chapters. One distinguishing feature of this work is that it recognises the paths of knowledge (jnana) and devotion (bhakti) as equally valid and expressly declares the oneness of Brahman with and without attributes.

What is it that human beings desire most? It would seem that there is no single answer to this question. Desires seem to be as numerous as there are individuals. Some crave for wealth, some for fame, some for power and so on. But is it possible to reduce all these desires to one single desire, of which all these are only different manifestations? The answer of Vedanta is in the affirmative. The one desire that is common to all human beings, nay, all living beings, is: "May I always be happy, may I never have to experience sorrow". Thus everything in this world is desired for the happiness it is expected to bestow, but happiness is desired for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Vedanta says that this universal desire happiness is because happiness is our real nature. We suffer misery only because we have not realized our real nature and wrongly think of ourselves as the body, senses or mind. When a person says he is stout or lean or tall or short, etc, he looks upon himself as his body. When he says, "I see", "I hear", "I smell", etc, he identifies himself with his sense organs. When he says, "I think", "I understand", etc., he identifies himself with his mind. All these identifications are wrong and result from ignorance of our real nature.

The highest goal of life according to Advaita Vedanta is the attainment of a state of supreme bliss by the realization of our real nature. This is not a state to be attained in some other world after the end of the present life, as in other schools of Vedanta. On the other hand it is to be attained here, in this world and during this life itself. This is the state known as Jivanmukti or liberation-in-life. This is attained when one realizes that he is not the body, or the senses, or the mind, but the self or Atma, which is identical with Brahman. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita expound the means of attaining this state. One essential requisite for this is purity of mind, which means a mind free from cravings for worldly pleasures. This should not be misunderstood as meaning that one has to renounce the world and take sannyasa. What has to be cultivated is an attitude of detachment. One who has cultivated such an attitude will be able to engage himself in his normal worldly activities, without becoming unduly distressed by adversities or unduly elated by favourable happenings. Only a person who has attained such a state of equanimity of mind will be able to concentrate his mind on the teachings of the Upanishads and give up his wrong identification with the body, senses and mind. When this wrong identification is given up, he remains as what he is in reality, namely, the Atma or self, which is identical with Brahman. Brahman is bliss and so when one realizes his identity with Brahman he enjoys supreme bliss. The first few chapters of the present book deal with the means by which such a detachment can be cultivated. Thereafter the book proceeds to deal with such matters as the nature of the Self, and leads step by step to the ultimate goal.

Chapter-1 - Censure of the physical body

The work commences with a salutation to Krishna, described as the Supreme Lord of the Yadava race, who is none other than the Unborn, Self-effulgent, Supreme Being, who is Pure Existence, Consciousness and Eternal Bliss. Thus the identity of the Personal God with Nirguna Brahman is established at the very outset. The next verse points out that Brahman whom even the Vedas are unable to describe, is certainly not accessible to the words of human beings. Though this is so, He can be attained through the scriptures and by contemplation on, and singing the praises of, Hari. However, spiritual practices, knowledge and devotion are of no avail without the cultivation of intense dispassion. Dispassion, knowledge of the Self and devotion -- these three together constitute the means to liberation. Dispassion is total absence of desire for all objects of enjoyment. The notions of 'I' and 'mine' are the obstacles to the rise of dispassion. The notion of 'I' relates to the body and the notion of 'mine' relates to objects such as wife, son, and possessions. If one ponders deeply over the nature of the body and its relationship with objects, these two notions can be gradually eliminated. The jiva (individual soul) takes a body in accordance with his past karma, and is born as a result of the union of the father and the mother. The jiva is baked by the flames of the digestive fire in the womb of the mother, surrounded by mucus, urine and faecal matter. After birth he undergoes sufferings of various kinds in childhood due to illness and other causes. The jiva takes birth in eighty four lakhs of different species such as insects, birds, animals, human beings and so on. The human body is the highest in the scale of evolution. Even among human beings, birth in a noble family of learned persons, which is conducive to the study and practice of the teachings of the Vedas, is the highest and most to be desired. If, even after attaining such a valuable birth, discrimination between the eternal Self and the perishable non-Self is not acquired, the life is merely wasted. There cannot be a greater loss than this. The next birth may be as an animal, or bird, etc., in which there is absolutely no possibility of spiritual progress. These creatures cannot even give expression to the suffering undergone by them.

The physical body is a collection of blood, bones, marrow, fat, flesh and the like. It is covered outside by the skin. But for this covering, it would be snatched and eaten by crows. The very sight of the phlegm emitted by the nostrils and the mouth, and the faecal matter from the anus is revolting. If a man sees a bone lying on the road, he would walk away from it in disgust, but he does not realise that his own body is full of similar bones. The body is full of foul-smelling matter from the hair on the head to the tip of the nails. People anoint this body with sandal paste and various cosmetics in order to conceal its defects. Fools praise the body, attributing merits to it. If a wound on the body is not cleaned for three days, worms arise there and a bad smell emanates. The body which till then slept on a beautiful couch is bound with ropes and pieces of wood and thrown into the fire when life departs from it. People worship with joy a king seated on his throne, but when he dies they do not like even to look at his body. Forgetting the Supreme Lord because of whom the impure body is sentient and active, man looks upon his body as himself. Where is the Self which is of the nature of Pure Existence and Consciousness, and where is the body made of flesh, blood and bones! Would any wise man think highly of the impure body?

The object in censuring the physical body in this manner is to generate dispassion in the mind of the spiritual seeker.

Chapter-2 - Censure of the objects of sense

The deluded man goes after sense pleasures which only weaken his body. Justas a house made of mud, which has collapsed because of heavy rain cannot be strengthened with mud, the man cannot regain his strength by indulging more in sense-pleasures. A man is infatuated with his wife even if she is not beautiful and this causes him mental agitation; but if she happens to be beautiful, his unhappiness is even greater because others may look upon her with longing. If the wife is very foolish, or disobedient to her husband, she becomes worse than an enemy.

The Veda says that there is no 'world' for a man without a son. What is the 'world' referred to by this statement? It is certainly not liberation. It cannot also be this world or heaven, because there are other means to attain them. The performance of sacrifices such as 'putrakameshti' are useless because they do not lead to real and permanent happiness. Before a son is born, a man is anxious to get one. When a son is born, the father is full of anxiety about his life. He is also worried whether the son will be intelligent and of good character, or otherwise. If the son hurts the father, mother or other relatives, he causes further misery to the parents. Even if the son has all virtues, there will be great unhappiness if he is diseased or dies prematurely. If it is said that a son enables his father to attain to a higher world after death, that also does not stand to reason, because each person's future depends on his own actions and merits and not on somebody else. Every person goes through innumerable births, in which he has different fathers, mothers, sons and relatives. Such associations are therefore purely transient, like wayfarers meeting at some place and then dispersing. The sons and other dependants are happy only if they are fed and looked after well, otherwise they become angry. Every one puts in great effort to acquire as much wealth as possible. But if excessive wealth is acquired, there is danger from thieves. Taxes levied by the Government may take away a substantial portion of the wealth. Quarrels also start within the family about the sharing of the wealth. Thus the objects acquired with great effort for the sake of getting happiness lead ultimately only to unhappiness and mental agitation.

(The object of this denunciation of objects of sense is to generate dispassion in the spiritual aspirant. The idea is that one should not get too attached to family, wealth, and possessions).

Chapter-3 - Censure of the mind

The mind, when possessed by the demoness of desire, becomes a devil. It wanders all over, is sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, and so on. It is sometimes virtuous and sometimes wicked. It is pulled in different directions by pride, greed, desire, anger, jealousy and other emotions. One can attain dispassion by giving up desires. The mind will then become calm.

Chapter-4 - Discarding objects of sense

The boat in the form of the human body is dragged here and there by the force of past karma in the ocean of worldly existence which is full of water in the form of sense-objects. This boat has nine openings (the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, the mouth and the organs of excretion and generation). Water in the form of sense-objects enters through these openings and tends to sink the boat. If these openings are kept closed, the jiva, who is the boatman, can reach the other shore with ease. Without controlling the senses, none can cross the ocean of worldly existence.

Some instances where free rein to the senses contributes to spiritual downfall are now given. A man looks with longing at the young wife of another man. This results only in his accumulating sin. A man listens to scandalous tales about another man, who is, however, not in the least affected by it. The only result is that the man listening to such tales incurs sin. When a person makes false allegations about others, those persons are not affected in the least, but the person who makes such allegations becomes a great sinner.

The pleasure enjoyed for a few moments because of the contact of the senses with an object turns into life-long misery when that object is lost. Therefore the wise man should give up hankering after such fleeting pleasures and seek what is eternal. A man given to sensual pleasures is ultimately carried away by death, just like the fish attracted by apiece of flesh in a bait. A frog with half its body in the mouth of a snake goes on devouring flies. Similarly, man who is in the clutches of death runs after sensual pleasures even in old age.

Chapter-5 - Restraint of the mind

If the mind is not allowed to go out towards external objects, but infixed on the Self, it will become identified with the Self. When the mind is thinking of sense objects it becomes tainted and tamoguna predominates. When the mind withdraws itself from sense objects and attains dispassion towards them, sattvaguna will begin to manifest. (Prakriti, which is the material cause of the whole world is said to be composed of three gunas or modes, namely, sattva, rajas and tamas. The mind is also constituted of the same three gunas. The proportion of these gunas varies from person to person. In the same person the proportion varies from time to time, depending on the activities of the mind, and one guna or other predominates. When sattvaguna predominates, the mind is calm, receptive to knowledge and pure. When rajoguna predominates, the person is actuated by greed and is inclined to engage in action for the fulfillment of his desires, heedless of the consequences. When tamoguna predominates, the person becomes lazy and goes into a torpor). The mind of the ordinary person constantly seeks pleasure through the sense organs. If the desired object is not attained the person thinks that he has lost something very valuable and is very unhappy.

Every one has to experience the consequences of his actions in this life or in past lives. This is the inexorable law. The only way to prevent the mind from running out in search of sense pleasures is by the cultivation of dispassion.

The happiness experienced in deep sleep is not born of any sense object because at that time there is no contact of the mind with external objects through the sense organs.

Just as a tiger confined to a place surrounded by high walls makes repeated efforts to jump over the walls and, becoming exhausted, lies down panting, the mind, failing in its efforts to go out on account of the sense organs being restrained, becomes calm. Then it gives up all effort.

The mind gradually gives up all agitation if the breath is controlled through pranayama, if the company of sages is resorted to, if the vasanas are given up, and by the cultivation of devotion to the feet of Hari. The mind and the breath are like two sides of the same coin and so when one is controlled the other also becomes calm.

Chapter-6 - Detachment

A person who has come as a guest for a short period to a house will not be unduly elated or depressed by any good or bad happenings in that house. Similarly, a person should stay in his house like a guest, unaffected by whatever happens in the house. One who is free from the notions of ‘I' and ‘mine' and who has turned his mind away from sense objects is never affected by anything even if he is staying in his house. For a man who sleeps in a forest at the cool foot of a tree where the ground is covered by sand and thick grass, the trees rich in leaves and fruits, the cool fragrant breeze, the birds which sing sweetly and the rivers become friends. The man who has attained total dispassion, whose mind is tranquil, who is free from desire, and who enjoys whatever comes to him unsolicited, has attained fulfillment herein this life itself.

If an object is lost due to carelessness, great sorrow is experienced. But if the same object is presented to a deserving and respected person, there is great joy for the giver. Similarly, if sense pleasures cease to be available or if they cannot be enjoyed because of old age or other reasons, that becomes the cause of sorrow for a long time. But if they are willingly renounced, there is happiness and ultimately, liberation.

The mind forgets its true abode, the Self, and runs about here and there in the terrible forest of sense objects in search of pleasure. It is tormented by the forest fire in the form of the three kinds of afflictions, namely, those caused by physical and mental ailments (known as adhyatmika), those caused by other creatures (adhibhautika), and those resulting from natural calamities such as floods, earthquakes, etc., (adhidaivika). It is captivated by desires for enjoyment and runs after objects of trifling value. Ultimately it is destroyed by the tiger in the form of sense objects. The mind is compared to a restless deer which roams about in the forest in search of grass and falls prey to a tiger. The never ending desires that keep on rising in the mind bring about the ruin of the human being and stand as obstacles to spiritual progress. Detachment is the virtue that should be cultivated most earnestly by every spiritual aspirant.

Chapter-7 - The Self

Although the knowledge about the Self (Brahman) is contained in the Upanishads, the spiritual aspirant should get it only from a Guru. The knowledge of the Self obtained from a mere study of the Upanishads is indirect, like the knowledge from the mere statement that ‘jaggery is sweet', which cannot give one any idea of what jaggery looks like or what is the nature of its sweetness. The knowledge received from a Guru is like the knowledge obtained by looking at the jaggery from a distance, which gives an idea of what jaggery looks like, but not about how it tastes. The knowledge obtained by the aspirant by intuitive perception or realization of the Self is like the delight one gets on actually tasting jaggery. Thus, while the scriptures and the Guru can only point out the way, actual realization of the Self depends on one's own effort.

What is it that enables us to experience taste, smell, form, sound, and touch and everything else? It cannot be the physical body or the sense organs, because these exist even in the dead body, but the dead body does not experience any pain when burnt. It cannot be the vital airs (prana), because, even though the prana is active during sleep, a person remains ignorant of thieves entering the house and stealing things. If it is said that it is the mind that enables us to experience all these, then why is it that the mind does not experience all these simultaneously? It is because the mind is itself dependent on the sense organs. This being so, what is it that enables us to have all these experiences?

Let a brightly burning lamp be placed on the floor in a room that is totally dark. Let the lamp be covered by a pot with five holes on the sides. Let various objects be placed all around the pot. The light from the pot, coming through the holes illumines these objects and makes them visible. The visibility of the objects is not caused by the holes in the pot or the lamp made of earth or any other material, or the oil or the burning wick. It is only the light of the lamp that illumines the objects. Similarly, it is the Self or pure Consciousness within the body that enables us to experience the various objects of sense such as taste, smell, etc.

Chapter-8 - Maya

Verse 95 of Prabodhasudhakara says that the Supreme Self who is nothing but Pure Consciousness saw himself as ‘I'. Thus he got the appellation ‘I'. That was the origin of difference and multiplicity.

The above verse is based on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Br. Up), 1.4.1, which says-"In the beginning (i.e. before creation), there was nothing but the Self in the form of a person. He pondered and saw nothing other than himself. He said, "I am he". Therefore he came to be called ‘I' (Aham). Therefore, even today, when a person is addressed, he first says, "It is I", and then only gives his name".

Verse 96 says that the Self existed as (or became divided into) two parts, as husband and wife. Therefore the space (by the side of the male) has always to be filled by a female.

This verse is based on Br. Up. 1.4.3,which says (as commented upon by Sri Sankaracharya) -- "The Self projected a body as big as a man and woman together in embrace. He then divided this body into two and they became husband and wife. Therefore the husband and wife are like the two halves of a split pea. Thus, tilla man gets married the space by his side is vacant. This space has to be filled by a wife". This statement in the Upanishad shows that equal importance is given to the husband and the wife. Moreover, it is implied here that a man becomes complete only when he gets married. This should dispel the totally wrong notion held by some that the Hindu religion frowns upon married life and holds up renunciation as the model for all. The scriptures say that one should normally go through the four ashramas one by one and enter the sannyasa ashrama only at the last stage of life. Of course, a person who has developed total detachment can go straight from brahmacharya to sannyasa, without going through the grahastha and vanaprastha ashramas, but that is the exception and not the general rule.

The Supreme Self created all creatures by its Maya, just as we create various objects in dream. So the universe is only like a dream. Maya, which is the power of the Supreme Self is neither different from nor identical with the Self. It is beginningless and is dependent on the Self which is the only reality. It is made up of the three Gunas, namely, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It brings forth the universe made up of the movable and the immovable. It is only because of maya that every one identifies himself with his body-mind complex and consequently experiences joys and sorrows resulting from external factors. When a person has crossed over this maya he realises that he is Brahman and remains as Brahman which is supreme bliss.

The mind is the connecting link between the Self which is pure consciousness and the physical body. The physical body perishes, but the mind continues, taking one physical body after another in numerous births. Death is the separation of the mind, also known as the subtle body, from a particular physical body. Birth is the entry of the subtle body into another physical body. The subtle body perishes only on the realization of Brahman, when avidya or ignorance is destroyed.

Just as the space enclosed in a pot or room is called pot-space or room-space, the Self (or Pure Consciousness) covered by Nescience is known as Jiva or individual soul.

A doubt arises here. How can ignorance cover Brahman which is pure consciousness? Can darkness cover the sun? The answer is: Clouds which are produced by the heat of the sun hide the sun from our view, but the fact that it is daytime is still known. Similarly ignorance hides Brahman from us, but the power of consciousness is not hidden and it is seen in all living beings.

Chapter-9 - Definition of subtle body, etc.

Within the gross body there is the subtle body. Within the latter is the causal body. Within that is the super-causal body. (In other works of Sri Sankara only one causal body is mentioned, but here two are mentioned. The difference between the two is explained subsequently). The gross body (or physical body) has already been explained in chapter1. The subtle body is the aggregate of the five subtle elements, the five vital airs, the five organs of sense and the internal organ (mind). It is what is referred to in the sruti by the statement, "The purusha is of the size of the thumb" (Kathopanishad).

The above definition of the subtle body differs from that found in other works of Sri Sankara. In other works the subtle body is described as the aggregate of (1) the five praanas, (2) the fives subtle organs of perception, (3) the five organs of action, (4) the mind, and (5) the intellect.

The causal body is made up of the mental impressions (vaasanaas) left by past actions.

The super-causal body is avidya, which is the cause of the manifestation of the causal body.

Though there are some differences between the definitions of the subtle body and causal body in the present work and those found in other works, the differences are not very material.

The reflection of pure consciousness in the intellect which is the essence of the subtle body is known as the jiva. This jiva causes the manifestation of the sense of ‘I-ness' in the physical body.

The reflection of the sun in the ocean moves because of the movement of the waves. Similarly the reflection of pure consciousness moves in accordance with the changes in the mind. But just as the sun is not affected by the movement of its reflection, pure consciousness is not at all affected by the movements of its reflection in the mind.

The light of the sun, when reflected from objects such as a bell-metal vessel, illumines the other objects in the same room. Similarly, the reflection of pure consciousness in the subtle body illumines the objects outside through the sense-organs i.e. the senses experience objects outside because of the consciousness reflected in the subtle body.