The destructive criticism of everything in the old system by the Chârvâkas and others set the orthodox section to organize their belief on a more rationalistic basis and render it immune against all such criticism. This led to the foundation of the six systems of orthodox Hindu philosophy—orthodox in the sense that they accepted the authority of the Vedas in things transcendental—while there were others who did not accept this authority and therefore were dubbed heterodox, though otherwise they too were the outcome of Upanishadic thought. The acceptance of the authority of the Vedas by these orthodox schools, however, does not mean that they accepted them in toto . Their allegiance to the Vedas varied widely and often it was too loose. Of the six orthodox schools, viz. Nyâya, Vaiseshika, Sânkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimâmsâ and Uttara Mimâmsâ or Vedanta, the last two are intimately connected with the Vedas, which is one of the reasons why they are not mentioned in the Jaina and Buddhistic literature, while the others are mentioned.
These six orthodox systems of thought developed side by side at different intellectual centres, of which there were a good number all over the country even during the Upanishadic period. Again in each system there were shades of difference. Thus for centuries philosophic thought developed in India till at last it became so unwieldy that a regular systematization of each school of thought was found a great necessity. This led to the Sutra literature.
These systematic treatises were written in short aphorisms called Sutras, meaning clues, and were intended as memory-aids to long discussions on any topic which the student had gone through with his teacher or Guru. The thought was very much condensed, for much was taken for granted. Consequently the maximum of thought was compressed into these Sutras in as few words as possible. Madhwâ-chârya quotes from Padma Purâna a definition of the Sutra in his commentary on the Brahma-Sutras which runs as follows:
अल्पाक्षरमसंदिग्धं सारवद्विश्वतोमुखम् ।
अस्तोभमनवद्यं च सूत्रं सूत्रविदो विदुः ॥
alpâkṣaramasaṃdigdhaṃ sâravadviśvatomukham |
astobhamanavadyaṃ ca sūtraṃ sūtravido viduḥ ||
“People learned in Sutra literature say that a Sutra should be concise and unambiguous, give the essence of the arguments on a topic but at the same time deal with all aspects of the question, be free from repetition and faultless.”
Though this definition states what a Sutra ought to be, in practice, however, the desire for brevity was carried to such extremes that most part of the Sutra literature is now unintelligible, and this is particularly so with respect to the Vedânta-Sutras which has consequently given rise to divergent systems.
There was Sutra literature in every branch of Indo-Aryan knowledge which had become cumbrous through centuries and required systematization. The authors of these Sutras, as we see, are not the founders of the thought or systems they propounded, but are mere systematizers of the thought developed on the subject by successive generations of thinkers for centuries. The thought of these Sutras was much developed by later thinker and even modified by them, though all of them disclaimed any originality in it, declaring that they were merely interpreting the Sutras. This was specially the case with respect to the philosophical Sutras. All these subsequent thinkers belonged lo one or other of the six systems and developed its traditionary thought from generation to generation, rendering it more and more perfect, and more and more secure against the ever new criticisms of rival schools. Such interpretations of the Sutras gave rise to various kinds of literary writings like Vâkvas, Vrittis, Kârikâs and Bhâshyas, each of them being more and more elaborate than the previous ones.
The Upanishads do not contain any ready-made consistent system of thought. At first sight they seem to be full of contradictions. Hence arose the necessity of systematizing the thought of the Upanishads. Bâdârayana, to whom the authorship of the Brahma-Sutras or Vedânta-Sutras is ascribed, is not the only one who had tried to systematize the philosophy of the Upanishads. From the Brahma-Sutras itself we find that there were other schools of Vedânta which had their own following. We find the names of Audulomi, Kâsakristna, Bâdari, Jaimini, Kârshnâjini, Âsmarathya and others mentioned. All this shows that Bâdarâyana’s Sutras do not constitute the only systematic work in the Vedânta school, though probably the last and best. All the sects of India now hold this work to be the great authority and every new sect starts with a fresh commentary on it —without which no sect can be founded in this country.
The Author and Date of the Sutras
About Bâdârayana, the author of the Sutras, very little is known to-day. Tradition, however, identifies him with Vyâsa, the author of the Gita and the Mahâbhârata. Sankara, however, in his commentaries refers to Vyâsa as the author of the Mahâbhârata, and the author of the Sutras he refers to as Bâdarâyana. Perhaps to him these two personalities were different. His followers, Vâchaspati, Ânandagiri and others identify Vyâsa and Bâdarâyana, while Râmânuja and other commentators on the Sutras attribute it to Vyâsa.
Deussen infers from the cross references in the works of Jaimini and Bâdarâyana that they may have been combined by a later editor into one work, and provided with the cross references.
This combined work, he says, was commented upon by Upavarsha op whose work the commentaries of Sahara on the Purva Mimâmsâ and Sankara on the Uttara Mimâmsâ rest. Sankara’s commentary on 3.3.53 gives support to this last view and it also explains the popular idea that the two Mimâmsâs form one Sâstra. This combined work might well have been arranged by Vyâsa, the author of the Mahâbhârata. Or it may be that he had written them himself according to the views that were traditionally handed down as Bâdarâyana’s. This latter view easily accounts for the reference to Bâdarâyana by name in the Sutras. That such a thing was not uncommon in ancient India is established by Cole-brook 011 the authority of Indian commentators of Manu and Yâjnavalkya. Max Müller also says that Bâdarâyana and other similar names are simply eponymous heroes of different philosophies.
In support of the view that the two persons are one it can be pointed out that there existed in the time of Panini Sutras known as Bhikshu-Sutras which are identified by Vâchaspati with the Vedânta-Sutras. The subject-matter of the Vedânta-Sutras being Brahman, the knowledge of which is pre-eminently meant for Sannyâsins, it might well be called Bhikshu-Sutras. Pânini in his Sutras ascribes these Bhikshu-Sutras to Pârâsarya, the son of Parâsara, i.e. Veda-Vyâsa, who was also called Bâdarâyana as he had his Âshrama at Badari in the Himalayas. That the Vedânta-Sutras and Purva Mimâmsâ-Sutras must have existed before Pânini can also be inferred from the commentary on both of them by Upavarslia who is said to be the Guru of Pânini in the Kathâ-saïit-sâgar, though we must admit it cannot be conclusively proved that the two Upavarshas are one and the same person.
The identity of the Vedânta-Sutras and the Bhikshu-Sutras would no doubt fix the date of the Sutras very early, before Buddha, and a question may arise how such an early work could have referred to various other schools of philosophy of a much later date and refuted them. In this connection we must not forget that the author of the Sutras does not refer to any founder of the different schools by name. He even does not use the technical terms of the different schools as they are known to us to-day. During that great philosophical ferment which followed at the close of the Upanishadic period various metaphysical views were held which later developed in definite channels. Therefore the fact that Bâdarâyana is acquainted with certain systems of thought which later came to be associated with certain names does not show that Bâdarâyana was later than these persons. These later names were by no means the original founders of these systems of thought, but only gave definite shape to some particular thought that was found in that mass of philosophical speculations which existed in that period. Bâdarâyana could anticipate even the Buddhistic and Jaina schools, for Buddha and Mahâvira also were not the founders of any altogether new schools of philosophy but imbibed much of the thought current in the country at the time. There was no revolutionary departure in their philosophy, but it was their great personality that shaped the history of India for centuries. As regards Jaina thought we know definitely that it existed from even before the time of Parswanâth (8th or 9th century B. C.). In fact all these systems must have belonged to the same period of philosophical ferment which preceded the rise of Buddhism. Thus a writer of the Vedânta-Sutras before Buddha may well be acquainted with the different schools of philosophy refuted in the Tarkapâda of that book, though they might not have existed in the form in which we know them to-day or in the form in which they have been refuted by Sankara.
Moreover, that the Vedânta-Sutras were known to exist before Buddha can also be made out from the Gitâ. The date of the Gitâ and the original Mahâbhârata, of which the Gitâ is a part, can be fixed before the time of Buddha. Both of them are pre-Buddhistic, for they contain no reference to Buddha and Buddhism. Quotations from both are found in Bodhayana who belongs to 400 B.C. The language of the Gitâ also seems to belong to a period before Pânini. He is also conversant with the epic characters. So we can well say that the Gitâ and the Mahâbhârata were known before Buddha. Now we find a clear reference to the Brahma-Sutras, in Gitâ 13.4), where the word ‘Brahma-Sutra-padaih’ occurs. This is a definite reference to the Vedanta-Sutras.
The full text runs as follows:
“This has been sung by the Rishis in various ways and in different metres and definitely and logically by the words of the Brahma-Sutras.”
Tilak argues in his Gitâ-Rahasya that the first half refers to teachings which arc disconnected and unsystematic and therefore refers to the Upanishads, while the later half to something definite and logical—a difference that is clearly brought out by this stanza and therefore refers to the systematized thought in the Vedânta-Sutras. Max Müller too is of opinion that the Vedânta-Sutras belong to an earlier period than the Gitâ and in the text just quoted he finds a clear reference to the recognized title of the Vedânta or Brahma-Sutras. Indian commentators on the Gitâ like Râmânuja, Madhwa and others identify the Vedânta-Sutras in this passage of the Gitâ.
But if the Vedânta-Sutras be of an earlier date than the Gitâ, how could it contain references to the Gitâ? In Sutras 2. 3. 45 and 4. 2. 21 all the commentators quote the same text of the Gitâ, and there seems to be no doubt that they are right. These cross references show that the author of the Gitâ had a hand in the present recension of the Sutras. This is also made clear by the rejection of the fourfold Vyuha of the Bhâgavatas both by the Gitâ and the Sutras and the great predominance given to the Sânkhya school in both. The Gitâ accepts the Sânkhya view of creation but modifies it to some extent and makes the Pradhâna subservient to the Supreme Brahman which is non-dual. In the Vedânta-Sutras also the author refutes the dualism of the Sânkhyas. Otherwise he has no objection to accepting the Pradhâna or Prakriti as a principle dependant on the Supreme Lord (vide 1. 4. 2-3). Sankara in his Bhâshya on these Sutras makes this quite clear.
From what has been said above we find that there are strong grounds for believing that the Vedânta-Sutras must have existed before Buddha and that if Bâdarâyana and Veda-Vyâsa are not one and the same person as tradition holds, the latter must have had a hand in the present recension of the Sutras, though it is very difficult to say to what extent— whether it was by way of merely revising the original Sutras of Bâdarâyana or writing them down in toto after the teachings of Bâdarâyana.
Commentators on the Brahma-sutras
It has already been shown that the Brahma-Sutras of Bâdarâyana somehow gained prominence and popularity and as a result all the great Âchâryas have written commentaries on it. The oldest of the extant commentaries is by Sankara, the exponent of Monism. A Vritti by Upavarsha is mentioned by Sankara and Bhâskara and a Vritti by Bodhâyana is referred to and often quoted by Râmânuja in his Sri Bhâshya. Sankara does not refer to Bodhâyana. According to Vedânta Desika the two are one person. Unfortunately this work of Bodhâyana is not available now. Ramânuja quotes also from the Dramida Bhâshya which evidently belongs to the Bhakti cult of Southern India. Sankara was followed by a host of commentators on these Sutras—Yâdava Prakâsha, Bhâskara, Vijnâna Bikshu, Ramânuja, Nilakantha, Sripati, Nimbârka, Madhwa, Vallabha and Baladeva There are even some recent commentaries, though of not much value. All these try to maintain that their system is the one that Bâdarâyana propounded through his Sutras.
At present, however, only five of these great commentators have a large following—Sankara, the exponent of Monism; Râmânuja, the exponent of Visishtâdvaita or qualified Monism; Nimbârka, the exponent of Bhedâbhedavâda or the theory of difference and non-difference; Madhwa, the exponent of Dualism; and Vallabha, the exponent of Suddhâd-vaitavâda. All of these systems seem to be based on the views of one or other of the ancient Vedânta schools which we find Bâdarâyana referring to in his Sutras.
A question may be raised how the same work could have given rise to so many conflicting schools of thought. The reasons are many. In the first place the brevity of the Sutras leaves much to be supplied by the commentators, and in the absence of an universally accepted unbroken tradition each is free to do this according to his own preconceived ideas. Sometimes even without supplying anything the same Sutra is capable of being interpreted differently and even conveying quite the opposite meaning (e.g. Sankara and Ramânuja on 3. 2. II) by the mere shifting of the stops. Again, while there is a tradition which is accepted more or less by all as regards the arrangement into chapters and sections, there is no such accepted tradition as regards the division into Adhikaranas (topics), nor is there anything authoritative to guide us as to which Sutras form the Purvapaksha or the prima facie view and which give the Siddhânta or the author’s view. So every one is free to divide the Sutras into topics according to his own choice and regard any Sutras as giving the author’s view. Then again, the Sutras do not give any reference as to which texts of the scriptures are being discussed and as a result the commentator is free to select any texts from that vast repertory, so much so that it often happens that different commentators see different topics discussed in the same set of Sutras. Added to all this is the difficulty that Bâdarâyana is often silent as regards his own decision and that on fundamental questions. He merely gives the views of different Vedântins and ends the topic (vide 1. 4. 20-22).
The five great commentators more or less agree on certain points, especially where the author attacks the principles of the non-Vedântic schools. All of them agree that Brahman is the cause of this world and that knowledge of It leads to final emancipation which is the goal to be attained; also that Brahman can be known only through the scriptures and not through mere reasoning. But they differ amongst themselves as to the nature of this Brahman, Its causality with respect to this world, the relation of the individual soul to It and the condition of the soul in the state of release.