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The most prominent thinker associated with the Advaita Vedanta school is Adi Shankaracharaya, but he wasn't the founder of Advaita; Adi Shankaracharaya's guru Govinda and Govinda's guru Gaudapada were also Advaitins. As I discuss in this question, Gaudapada is famous for his Karika or commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, which you can read here.

In chapter 2 of the Mandukya Karika, Gaudapada says that although Brahman is the ultimate reality, people of different philosophical schools conceive reality as a variety of different things due to their Avidya. In particular, he says this:

pañcaviṃśaka ityeke ṣaḍviśa iti cāpare |
ekatriṃśaka ityāhurananta iti cāpare ||

Some say that the Reality consists of twenty-five categories, others twenty-six, while there are others who conceive It as consisting of thirty-one categories and lastly people are not wanting who think such categories to be infinite.

Let me explain what Gaudapada is saying (as described in Anandagiri's Tika or subcommentary). Kapila's Samkhya school believes in 25 Tattvas or elements: 24 evolutes of Prakriti (matter/energy) along with Purushas or souls. Patanjali's Yoga school believes in 26 Tattvas because it adds Ishwara or the supreme being to the Samkhya worldview. The Pashupata sect of Shaivism believes in 31 Tattvas, because it adds 6 evolutes of Prakriti to the Samkhya worldview, most prominently Kala or time. And although Gaudapada doesn't mention it, followers of the Shaiva and Shakta Agamas believe in 36 Tattvas, because they add five more Tattvas to the Pashupata worldview, most prominently various types of Mala or impurity.

But I'm interested in the part in bold. My question is, what school of philosophy believes in an infinite number of Tattvas?

And does this school believe in an infinite number of evolutes of Prakriti, or does it believe in finitely many evolutes of Prakriti and infinitely many non-Prakriti elements, similar to Purusha and Ishwara? Do any commentaries on Gaudapada's Karika shed light on this? As I noted above Anandagiri's Tika discusses other parts of the verse but not the infinite Tattvas part.

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    Ans - i think KS & Shakta also believes infinite number of tattvas. 31*number of universes + 5 common tattvas. Infinite number of tattvas are due to multi universes, not within one universe. – Mr. Sigma. May 2 '17 at 3:38
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    @RakeshJoshi "there is no such philosophy that we know comprises of infinite tattwas. might be in buddhism" Yes, that's a possibility. In that chapter Gaudapada enumerates beliefs of both Hindu and non-Hindu philosophical schools. – Keshav Srinivasan May 2 '17 at 3:41
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    @Rohit "Ans - i think KS & Shakta also believes infinite number of tattvas. 31*number of universes + 5 common tattvas. Infinite number of tattvas are due to multi universes, not within one universe." I don't think that multiple instances of the same Tattva are counted as multiple Tattvas. Each person had their own instance of Tattvas like Buddhi, Manas, etc., but that doesn't mean that those are counted as multiple Tattvas. – Keshav Srinivasan May 2 '17 at 3:44
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    Gaudapada views are in error as his views are within Māyā Tattva, whereas tattvas theory of KS is the theory of Mahādeva who is beyond Màyà Tattva. One whose experience is within Māyā Tattva can't reject the views when conceived going beyond Màyà Tattva only. It is like a man, has been spending his whole life in a house has got views of exterior designing of the house. And refuting the ones who have designed the exterior of the house. – Mr. Sigma. May 2 '17 at 4:55
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    Well once again you have managed to give your distorted opinion of Advaita in your editorializing before asking an actual question - which is trivial. You have missed the entire purport of the verse in question. I will give a detailed answer in the next day or two. – Swami Vishwananda May 2 '17 at 11:14
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This is verse II. 26 of the Karika. This verse says what some say the Atman consists of. It is important to note that the verses prior to and subsequent to this verse describe the beliefs of what others think the Atman is. In other verses it says there are some who say the Atman is the Vedas, or padas, or the lokas, or as sacrifices, or as the gods, or as objects of enjoyment, etc., etc. He is setting up all these verses, including verse 26 to refute them. The point that Gaudapada is making in this verse 26 is that there are some that say the Atman consists of x number of tattvas. By ending the verse in a reference to an infinite number, he is saying that you can find different people that will say it is any number – be it x, y, z or infinite. He is not referring to any specific group or school of philosophy; a better translation to convey his meaning might be “…and there will be others that say it is 100, 200, 500, 1000 - or whatever, up to infinity.”

Swami Nikhilananda adds in his translation the following as a commentary to this verse:

The mutual contradictions involved in these theories prove their fallacious nature.

Gaudapada is not putting forth any specific number of tattvas over another. If you read the subsequent verses, you then know is he saying that they are all contradictory. In verse 29 he then says (Swami Nikhilananda translator):

The disciple grasps only that idea which is presented to him by his teacher. Atman assumes the form (of what is taught) and thus protects the disciple. Absorbed in that idea, he realizes it as Atman.

And Swami Nikhilananda adds the following to the commentary on this verse:

The following is adapted from Sankara’s commentary:

What will one gain by endless discussion of this kind? Whatever interpretation of Atman—whether mentioned above or not—is given to the disciple by the teacher, he takes for Ultimate Reality; he says to himself: “I am that” or “That is mine.” Such a conception of Atman as is explained to the inquirer appears to him as the sole Reality. It protects him and keeps him away from other ideas. On account of his single-minded devotion to that ideal he attains identity with it.

Follow the one idea/concept that your teacher expounds to you. Krishna says in the Gita 9.23 (Swami Nikhilananda translator):

Even those devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods, worship Me alone, O son of Kunti, though in a wrong way.

Gaudapada is saying that these are all ‘likely stories’ of how to explain creation from within creation and by reasoning alone in II and III refutes them all. Further on in IV. 42-43 (Swami Nikhilananda translator):

Wise men teach causality only for the sake of those who, afraid of non-creation, assert the reality of (external) objects because they perceive such objects and also because they cling to various social and religious duties. Those who, because of their fear of the truth of absolute non-creation and also because of their perception (of external objects), deny ajati (non-creation) are not affected by the evil consequent on the belief in creation. This evil, if any, is insignificant.

Sri Vidyaranya Swami echoes this in his Pancadasi 100-102 (Swami Swahananda translator):

The followers of Sankhya, Vaisesika, the Buddhist and other schools have established with quite an array of arguments (the real nature of) the multiplicity in the universe. Let them have these. We have no quarrel with them. (In the pragmatic world we too accept them all.)

There are philosophers who, holding an opposite view, disregard the real non-duality entity. That does not harm us, who (following the Veda, reason and experience, are convinced of our own unshakable position and therefore) have no regard for their conclusion.

And Krishna says in the Gita 9.15:

Others, again, offer the oblation of knowledge, and worship Me either as one with them or as distinct from them: and still others in various ways worship Me, whose form is the whole universe.

Pick whatever theory of creation or number of tattvas that appeals to your mind. Follow it faithfully. All roads lead to the Divine.

  • Well, considering that the numbers 25, 26, and 31 all correspond to numbers of Tattvas that different actually existent philosophical schools believe in (as described in AnandagirI's commentary), I think infinitely many Tattvas may also correspond to an existent philosophical school. – Keshav Srinivasan May 4 '17 at 6:23

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