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As I discuss in this question, by far the most popular school of Hindu philosophy is the Vedanta school, which bases its tenets on the doctrines laid out in the Brahma Sutras, a work by the sage Vyasa that summarizes and systematizes the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. (You can read the Brahma Sutras here.) But the Vedanta school didn't always have the dominant position in Hindu philosophy; before the time of Adi Shankaracharya the dominant school of Hindu philosophy was the Purva Mimamsa school, which I discuss here. In contrast to the Vedanta school which is devoted to analyzing the Jnana Kanda of the Vedas, i.e. the Upanishads, Purva Mimamsa focuses on analyzing the Karma Kanda of the Vedas, i.e. the Samhitas and Brahmanas.

As I said, the Purva Mimamsa school doesn't focus on the Upanishads, but this excerpt from Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutras discusses the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, since it is actually part of thee Brahmanas of the Vedas as I discuss here. The context of this is that some Yagnas are designed to yield rewards not in the present life, but in the afterlife, so Jaimini enters into a discussion of whether there is an Atma that survives the death of the body. In response to the objection that Atmas don't exist because no one can point out their Atma to you, Jaimini argues that each person can only apprehend their own Atma, and that doesn't imply that other people's Atmas doesn't exist, any more than the fact that a blind man cannot see the world would imply the non-existence of the world. He cites the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to support his claim that a person's Atma is imperceptible to everyone else:

As a matter of fact the Cognizer is self-cognized, he cannot be perceived by another, how then could he be pointed out to another? ... In support also of the view that one Self is not apprehended by another, we have the Brahmana-text — 'Being inapprehensible, it is not apprehended' Brhaddranyaka-Upanisad, 3. 9. 25); what this means is that it is not apprehended by another; — 'how so?' — because the Self has been spoken of as 'self-luminous in the text 'Herein the Person is self-luminous' (Brihaddranyaka-Upanisad, 4. 3. 9) [which means that the Self is cognised by itself, not by another self].

Now given that the Upanishads are the bread and butter of the Vedanta school, my question is, are there any thinkers belonging to the Vedanta school who agree with Jaimini's interpretation of this Brihadaranyaka verse? Here is the verse in question:

  1. Sâkalya said: 'And in what dost thou (thy body) and the Self (thy heart) abide?' Yâgñavalkya said: 'In the Prâna (breath).' Sâkalya said: 'In what does the Prâna abide?' Yâgñavalkya said: In the Apâna (down-breathing).' Sâkalya said: 'In what does the Apâna abide?' Yâgñavalkya said: 'In the Vyâna (back-breathing ).' Sâkalya said: 'In what does the Vyâna-abide?' Yâgñavalkya said: 'In the Udâna (the out-breathing).' Sâkalya said: 'In what does the Udâna abide?' Yâgñavalkya said: 'In the Samâna. That Self (âtman) is to be described by No, no! He is incomprehensible, for he cannot be (is not) comprehended; he is imperishable, for he cannot perish; he is unattached, for he does not attach himself; unfettered, he does not suffer, he does not fail.'

Now naturally Jaimini's claim that people apprehend their own Atma and not other people's Atmas would be meaningless to Adi Shankaracharya, since as an Advaitin, Adi Shankaracharya believed that there was only one Atma, namely Paramatma or Brahman, and he says in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras that the self which is apprehended by the mind is not the actual Atma. So he interprets the verse as saying that Paramatnma cannot be perceived because he is Nirguna or attributeless; here's what he says in this section of his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

This self is That which has been described in the Madhukānda as ‘Not this, not this’ (II. iii. 6). It is imperceptible, not perceivable. How? Because It is beyond the characteristics of effects, therefore It is imperceptible. Why? For It is never perceived. Only a differentiated object, which is within the range of the organs, can be perceived; but the Self is the opposite of that.

But other Vedantic philosophies do acknowledge the existence of multiple Atmas, so is it possible that other commentaries on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad interpret the verse the same way Adi Shankaracharya does?

The Dvaita philosopher Madhvacharya, despite believing in the existence of multiple Atmas, still interprets this verse as referring to Paramatma; see this excerpt from his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

"This (Hari) is," continued Yajnavalkya, "neither like Brahma, touched with misery, nor is He like Mukta Rama, untouched by misery. This Atman is incapable of being grasped as a whole, for no one has ever been able to grasp Him."

But do any commentators believe that this verse refers to Jivatma, and the incomprehensibility refers to incomprehensibility to others? For instance, what does Ranga Ramanuja, the Sri Vaishnava commentator on the Upanishads (not to be confused with the more famous Sri Vaishnava Acharya Ramanujacharya), say about this verse?

  • Interesting question. I found both sides of the argument to be convincing. At first reading it would seem as if the Atma is just incomprehensible. But then what is Self-Realisation? And then Jaimini's commentary informs you that it is realisation of your own self, which is incomprehendable to others, am I right? – Surya Apr 17 '16 at 17:01
  • But what is most interesting is that Madhvacharya and Shankaracharya, though poles apart, both say the same thing, though each one from his perspective. Which makes me think that Ranga Ramanujar would have done the same thing. – Surya Apr 17 '16 at 17:02
  • Well, Jaimini isn't talking about Realization, he's talking about the fact that any ordinary person can perceive their own self with their own mind; you know that you exist, I know that I exist, etc. But the "I" that you're perceiving is imperceptible to me, and the "I" that I'm perceiving is imperceptible to you. That is the self that Jaimini thinks the Brihadararanyaka Upanishad is referring to. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 17 '16 at 17:13
  • But Adi Shankaracharya believes that that self which is perceived by the mind is an illusory self, produced by Ahankara or Ego, and that your real Atma, which he equates with Brahman, is something that's inaccessible even to your own mind. By the way, non-Advaitins make a distinction Jivatma and Paramatma, which means that there's a distinction between "self-realization" or Ekatva, and true realization of Brahman; see my question here: hinduism.stackexchange.com/q/6686/36 – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 17 '16 at 17:18
  • Haha yeah, you'd be surprised how often different commentators agree with one another when there isn't a core philosophical disagreement at issue; the statement "Brahman is inaccessible to the mind" is equally true is Advaita, Dvaita, Visistadvaita, etc., so interpreting the verse in that way wouldn't pose problems for anyone's philosophy. So yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if Ranga Ramanuja said the same thing. But I'm wondering if the Mimamsa interpretation of the verse is also consistent with one or more of the Vedantic philosophies. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 17 '16 at 17:30

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