Shankara on the Teacher/Pupil relationship,
Bhagavad Gita verses IV. 34-39
Shankara’s text-frames and summarizing comments.
The Gita, like many other divinely-inspired texts, gives its teachings in groups of verses, which have to be read together as a unity. Then another subject may be taken up abruptly, not closely related to the first one. If a reader tries to force the two groups into a sequence, he gets bewildered.
To prevent that, Shankara carefully provides a frame for each group, as indeed does the Gita itself at the most important points. The top of the frame is often a question: `What is to be said about this and this?’ and the bottom can be: `Thus the conclusion is…’ Within the frame the verses of the passage have been considered in relation to each other, to the Gita as a whole, and to the Upanishadic and traditional background.
In key places Shankara singles out the conclusion as a major point of the teaching, by adding: `And that is the settled conclusion of all the holy texts’, or of the Gita and the Upanishads, or of the Vedanta scriptures. That the conclusion also agrees with reason and other authorities is sometimes added. These summarizing comments, which are not frequent, mark out key formulations of Shankara’s central doctrine. We find these three points illustrated in the brief extract on teacher-pupil in Gita Ch. IV, verses 34-39.
Shankara introduces verse 34 with the words: By what means is this lofty Knowledge attained? The answer is:
Know it by prostrating yourself, by questioning, by service; The Knowers who have realized the truth will teach you the Knowledge (jnana). (Verse 34).
We can note here that three means to Knowledge are given from the pupil’s side; and Shankara introduced them as answering the question: How is the Knowledge to be attained? They are in fact three modes of outer behaviour for a pupil:
Prostration, which Shankara explains traditionally as full-length on the ground;
Questions, again traditionally, about knowledge and ignorance, bondage and release;
Seva or Service (same word), as any other apprentice.
This is all conduct, and nothing has yet been said as to the inner state.
Now the teacher’s side is dealt with in the second half of the verse. They have to be qualified, and there are two qualifications: they must be Jnani, which here has the limited sense of text-mastery of the sacred teachings, and they must be Tattvadarshin, namely have direct vision of the truth in them. They must have confirmed the truth in their own experience.
We must note carefully this special restricted meaning of the word Jnana or Knowledge, to mere theoretical fields. Jnana in the Gita and in Shankara normally means not merely theory of Universal Self but living experience of it. That is why the process of Yoga is said to be from Shruti, from Revelation-in-words, to Anubhuti, to actual incorporation of this in living experience.
But occasionally in the Gita, Jnana is set against, or paired with, another word: sometimes the pair is Jnana-and-Vijnana (ch. VII. v.3), sometimes Jnana-and-Yoga (XVI.1). In these cases, the word Jnana (knowledge) is carefully explained by Shankara as not having its full meaning of Realization, but rather the usual Western use of the word knowledge, namely accurate information. Quite different is the other member of the pair: the man of Yoga, of Vijnana, the Tattvadarshin of the present verse, who is living holy truth. Shankara says: `Some only both know (in theory) and experience for themselves in themselves the holy truth’.
So there are those two qualifications for the teachers. It may be remarked in passing that though the pupil in this verse is one, `you’, the teachers are given in the plural. This may be to cover the not infrequent case where a teacher dies during the apprenticeship, and the student comes under his successor. There are a few other cases in the Upanishads where a pupil has more than one teacher.
As already pointed out, a verse such as this may have to be read together with some other text or texts. Shankara’s method is not simply to choose some favourite text and say obstinately: `This is clear and this is enough’. Rather, he puts together the texts on a similar theme, and extracts the underlying meaning. To him, all the Upanishadic texts are of equal validity: they do not contradict, but complement each other. Some of them may be intended literally, and others figuratively or rhetorically perhaps, but they all refer to the same directly experienced truth, and in the light of that truth they are all reconciled. As an example, one early traveller reported the Pyramids of Egypt as `tiny black triangles’ and another as `overwhelming masses of rosy light’. The first had seen them from a distance at dawn, and the other from close by at midday. The apparently directly contradictory statements are both acceptable to anyone who has been there, they complement each other.
So here, verse 34 is complemented by verse 39. Shankara points out in his commentary to 39 that the methods of prostration, asking questions, and service are externals, outer behaviour, and they might be a mere show, done by what he calls `Maya-vid’, a trickster, perhaps some ambitious person wanting seniority or prestige. Such a pupil might go through these motions with apparent sincerity, but for hidden motives.
Again, there may be no conscious hypocrisy; prostrations, questions, and service can simply become a way of life without any further aim than themselves. In some great temples of the Far East, the monks (including, it may be added, the teachers) work every day in the monastery, and periodically hold great public Services. Some of these are called Battle Of Dharma: a teacher sits magnificently robed on the high seat and a disciple comes up, prostrates himself three times, and then asks a traditional question about the Dharma. The teacher replies, often very forcefully, and the disciple retires with words of gratitude. But in fact some of the monks may not understand much of the answer, or even their own question. It is just part of the Service, which is part of a way of life. (It should be said that the real training takes place in private, in a very simple manner.)
So Shankara says that these three practices – prostration, questioning and service – do not invariably by themselves lead to Realization, the spiritual Knowledge-experience. (Here he is using Jnana in its normal full sense).
How is this?
Verse 39 – First half
The pupil: necessary inner state
The man of faith attains Knowledge,
Who has It as his supreme goal,
Who has subdued the senses, (IV.39A).
(1) must have faith, and
(2) he must be one-pointedly aiming at It (Knowledge – tat-parah) as his one purpose, and
(3) he must have control of the senses, be able to withdraw them from functioning on their objects.
In II.58 this is compared to a tortoise pulling in its limbs completely, a simile quoted also by St Teresa of Avila, with the comment: `Whoever it was who said this, doubtless knew what he was talking about’.
In the introduction to this verse Shankara has a sentence: `The unfailing means of getting Knowledge is going to be taught below’. So the three external means – by themselves – are not infallible means to Knowledge – but the absolutely sure means are those outer three when infused with inner life of faith, sincere purpose, and sense mastery.
He takes the points one by one, to show that for a proper result, all three are necessary. For example, someone full of faith may be slow, in the sense that he becomes complacent; and perhaps feels that he can leave everything to the Lord and the teacher. While circumstances are favourable, there can be an apparent outer serenity, which in fact masks inner inertia of tamas. He thinks he is relying on the Lord, but he has the secret thought that if the Lord happens to overlook him, he has anyway his cheque-book or other resources. He can delude himself with misapplied slogans such as `The seed cannot be hurried to maturity’. When this happens, the Lord and the teacher may give a great shaking, to awaken him to tat-parah – urgent quest. This makes his prostration, his questioning, his service, sincere and spiritually meaningful, and not merely a way of life. In addition he must be able to control his senses, otherwise he may be swept away by them in spite of himself. As before, this inner quality protects the integrity of the outer means which otherwise may become self-sufficient routines.
The Long Path of Purification The Inner Rise of Knowledge
There is in this world no purifier like knowledge He who is purified by Yoga,
In time finds it in himself by himself. (IV.38).
At first this might seem a circle: Knowledge is the purifier, but to get that Knowledge one has to be purified already. But in fact, there are two purifications: (1) the long process, by Yoga, up to Knowledge, and (2) the short process of renunciation of action, and establishment (nishtha) of Knowledge. Shankara explains the normal rule: there is first an arduous process of outer and inner `perfection’ (which here and in many places in the Gita means purification); the outer is by Karma Yoga (independence of events, and doing the divinely prescribed duties in evenness of mind), and the inner by Samadhi Yoga, the systematic practice of profound meditation on God and His attributes.
The practices have to be pursued till they become habitual – no longer willed but natural expressions. The verse says of this `in time’ and Shankara adds: `a long time’. Then, says the verse: `he finds it’. The word is crucial: this Knowledge is not a creation, like the everyday knowledge or scientific knowledge. Knowledge of the inner but universal Self does not have to be built up and sustained by efforts. `In the consciousness of Brahman, there is no effort’, says Shankara. It could not be so created; attempts to do so are merely dreams, temporary exaltations perhaps, like being (in the Zen phrase) `drunk on words’.
At first, statements of an inner Universal Self are incredible, and in practice are neutralized by taking them as poetry, or in some rarefied sense well away from practical life. But a determined pupil, not finding it when he inspects his inner world, feels that he simply has to create it. The verse is telling him that when he has purified the inner landscape to a good degree, he begins to notice that the meditation texts given to him in answer to his `questioning’ are pointing not at his individual I but through it. When the needle-point of his meditation is steady and focused, it penetrates the remaining layers of dullness and distraction, and `he finds it in himself by himself’. Shankara explains in many places that this represents the self-awakening of the divine Self in the self. He finds it in time in himself by himself.
Shankara’s comment: `The seeker of Liberation, Moksha, who has perfected and regenerated himself by Yoga – by Karma Yoga and by Samadhi Yoga – will after a long practice himself find spiritual Knowledge in himself.’
So this verse is referring to a process taking a good time, whereby the pupil finds it by himself in himself – and there is nothing here said about the grace of the teacher. In this particular verse, it looks as though having learnt from the teacher, and having the faith in the teacher, then he goes to a solitary place and in himself by himself he realizes.
This can be reconciled with the view that it is by the grace of the Lord, by quoting from chapter X verse 11: `Out of his compassion He enters the heart of the disciple and lights the luminous flame of pure Jnana there’.
So we can say that `by himself’ means that the Lord manifesting in himself, the Lord as Himself finds it in himself. Similarly there is the verse 10 in chapter XIII on how Jnana is attained which after listing the qualities such as humility and service of the teacher, gives `retirement to a solitary place’ and `unwavering devotion to the Lord with single-minded concentration’ which Shankara explains as Samadhi.
What is the result of this acquisition of Wisdom? The answer follows:
Verse 39 B
Shankara’s summarizing comment:
Establishment of Knowledge (jnana-nishtha) is the quick means to Liberation.
Having got Knowledge, in no long time He goes to supreme peace. (IV.39B)
Having obtained Knowledge, he ere long – quickly – attains the supreme Peace called Moksha (Liberation). Thus Knowledge is not Moksha, but a quick means to it. In this passage, he uses also the word samyag-darshana, right vision, which is his strongest word for Knowledge of Truth; it can never mean merely theoretical knowledge of texts.
Shankara sums this up as the unanimous conclusion of the texts, adding that it is also supported by reason (nyaya): `That the Right Knowledge (samyag-darshana) quickly leads to Moksha is an established truth clearly taught by all the Shastras – the teaching texts – as well as reason’.
`Quickly’: the Short Course
This short course, from the first rise of Knowledge up to Liberation, has two elements, as Shankara explains in his introduction to the Gita and many other places: Renunciation-of-Action (samnyasa), along with (purvaka) Establishment-of-Knowledge (jnana-nishtha).
(1) Renunciation of Action
As a blazing fire reduces firewood to ashes,
So the Knowledge-fire reduces all actions to ashes. (IV.37)
This means completely throwing away the feeling `I do’, but not necessarily expressed in physical withdrawal. The impulse of past commitments may fulfil them through the surviving purified body-mind complex, energized by the active principle of sattva or light. But such actions are without any feeling of `I do’.
This is his simile for the short path of jnana-nishtha or establishment of the Knowledge attained.
So we see that the acquiring of Knowledge requires the six means, three external and three internal, and takes a long time. It leads to the rise of Knowledge, which is however not the same thing as supreme Peace, Liberation. It is kept clear of the trailing ends of former memory-traces, which though known to be unreal, still form a sort of constriction. Because they are unreal, they cannot survive for long, and `in no long time’, or kshipram, quickly, as Shankara describes it, leads to Peace. This, he concludes in his summing-up, is the established position of all the Shastra teachings.
(2) Establishment of Knowledge
In this world, no purifier is found equal to Knowledge. (IV.38)
The process of jnana-nishtha is called in Chapter iii, Jnana-Yoga, and Shankara says: `Knowledge itself is the Yoga’. In essence, it consists in freeing the Knowledge from unreal memory-notions. What does it mean in practice? By a temporary mix-up of records of test results, someone is told that he has a terrible disease. He feels well enough, but he has to believe what he is told, and is in great anxiety. Almost immediately the mistake is corrected, and he knows he is well. In spite of this, the tensions of fear take time to go. He is told, and tells himself again and again: `No illness, no anxiety, I am well, perfectly well’. This corresponds to the process of Knowledge-Yoga. He knows, but he still has to know by thinking. `In no long time’ the anxiety is finally dispelled; it floats away into the infinite. He no longer thinks, `I am well’; he is well. He knows by being.
When the Yoga of Knowledge completes its nishtha or establishment, thinking is transcended. It is instant Liberation, oneness with God.
As Dr Shastri says in Wisdom from the East: `God does not think’. God does not think because he is already All.
You will see all beings without exception, in your Self, in God. (IV.35)
© Trevor Leggett.