In Kena Upanishad we see it is Atman that does all the action, it is the one who forces the mind to think, eyes to see, ears to listen, and so on.

केनेषितं पतति प्रेषितं मनः। केन प्राणः प्रथमः प्रैति युक्तः। केनेषितां वाचमिमां वदन्ति। चक्षुः श्रोत्रं क उ देवो युनक्ति ॥ ||१||

श्रोत्रस्य श्रोत्रं मनसो मनो यत्। वाचो ह वाचं स उ प्राणस्य प्राणः। चक्षुषश्चक्षुरतिमुच्य धीराः। प्रेत्यास्माल्लोकादमृता भवन्ति ॥ ||२||

But all the Shankara Advait Vedantins I have met so far claim that Brahman cannot be an actor, perceiver, or knower. Is there any truth to this claim? Does Adi Shankara ever say this?

I saw this question Advaita : Does Brahman remain actionless?

It says Brahman is actionless in Advaita Vedanta, but it doesn't provide any citation. Therefore I'm asking the question again, this time asking for citation because the Upanishads directly contradict this claim by Shankara Advaita Vedantins.


3 Answers 3


Abbreviations used

Br̥hadāraṇyakopaniṣad: BU ; Brahmasūtra Śaṅkara Bhāṣya: SB ; Brahmasūtras: BS ; Kenopaniṣad: KeU ; Kaṭhopaniṣad:KaU ;Muṇḍakopaniṣad: MU ;Bhagavad Gītā: BG ; Śvetāśvataropaniṣad: SU; Śaṅkara: Ś

Yes, Brahman is the one who knows, perceives and acts at the level of fundamental reality. It's only avidyā which gives one the incorrect view that māyā or prakr̥ti is the cause. This is Ś's view, however his commentators and later Advaitins differ from on this topic, as would be seen later in the answer.

BU (IV.3.6) : "When the sun and the moon have both set, the fire has gone out, and speech has stopped, Yājñavalkya, what serves as the light for a man?" "The Self serves as his light. It is through the light of the Self that he sits, goes out, works and returns."
Ś refutes the objections by materialists in the commentary, where the Self alone is the agent, and not the mind, eyes etc. There is a light which is other than the body and yet exists within and without, which is the true agent.

KaU (II.2.5): Not by praṇa, not by apāna, does any mortal live; but it is by some other on which these two depend that men live
Ś, in his commentary, clearly argues that it is through some other alone i.e. Self, by virtue of which, prāṇa, apāna and the rest depend on to perform their function. The one who is responsible for the function itself is the Self.

And similarly, we see that Brahman is the one who is responsible for the function of action (not actionless), in many other places, in both original texts and it's commentaries by Śaṅkara such as SU (VI.14), MU (II.2.10), KeU (I.1-2) and BG (XV.12-13), BG(V.8-9), and so on.

So, how come this perception of Brahman not being an active agent enter into the mind of later Advaitins, because it surely wasn't Śaṅkara's view at all. This is a lot to do with the different interpretations of causality by the commentators of SB.

Ś declares many times throughout his works that it is cetana Brahman alone which is the cause of the universe and not acetana pradhāna (prakr̥ti). In SB (1.1.12), he clearly mentiones Brahma viparīta kāraṇa niṣedha i.e. any non-conscious cause which is opposed in its nature to Brahman is totally forbidden by śruti. Although Gauḍapāda upholded the view of non-origination (ajātivāda), Ś strongly held the view of 'origination' of the universe from Brahman, which is not actually a real origination but is for purely pedagogic purpose to be used to satisfy the curiosity of the unenlightened, ignorant seekers.

According to Ś, in any instance of true production or origination, the effect that is produced must have an intrinsic nature (svabhāva) which is entirely different from the basic nature of the cause from which it is produced. But if the svabhāva is never at different, then it's not true production.

As only cetana Brahman is existent for Ś, something is produced from Brahman only if some-thing (physical world) which is truly acetana or unconscious is produced from Brahman. Take the example of a pot produced from clay where clay is the cause and the pot is the effect produced from it. Now, in this case, has something which is very different svabhāva A (a pot) has been produced from something else which has certain other svabhāva B (clay)? That's incorrect, because the svabhāva of the clay hasn't changed even after it was made into a pot, whose svabhāva is also clay. Thus, the effect (pot) is not at all really different (ananya) in its svabhāva from the clay. On the basis, Śaṅkara puts forth the view of the actual relationship of non-difference (ananyatva) b/w the cause and its effect, where both share the same common svabhāva. Similarly, the world is an effect of Brahman. Just as how the clay doesn't cease to be clay when made into pot, Brahman doesn't cease to be Brahman when it becomes the world. This has been misinterpreted by many commentators of Ś.

Many traditional Advaitins now may feel great difficulty in accepting what's stated above, since they all firmly believe that the world is jaḍa or acetana. The view of Ś which we gave forth shows that when Brahman 'becomes' the world, its essential svabhāva of consciousness does not at all go missing from the world (just like clay and pot example). So, when it's said that the world is acetana, it doesn't mean absence of consciousness in the world but only that the world does not openly manifest consciousness. In other words, the world is not, by its very nature, acetana; it only appears to be acetana.

Is the world indeed an effect of Brāhmaṇa since it exhibits features like acetanatva which are most clearly never the features of Brāhmaṇa?

In Ś's view, though non-different from their causes, effects can still appear to be radically different in svabhāva from their causes (due to avidyā). In fact, Ś rejects the pūrvapakṣa view that 'Brāhmaṇa cannot be the cause of the world because the world is vilakṣaṇa from Brāhmaṇa on account of its acetanatva. (SB II.1.6).

Here the objection stated in II.1.(4-5) is refuted. That the world cannot proceed from Brahman because the two are different in nature (vilakṣaṇa) cannot be accepted. It is very clearly seen in the world that from persons well known as endowed with cetana, entities different from them [acetana entities] like hairs and nails are produced; and likewise entities endowed with cetannatva like scorpions are clearly produced from cow dung etc., which are well known as acetana.

Hair and nails arising from living body of a conscious person are well known as acetana but are never in fact truly so. Similarly, cow dung etc. only appears to be acetana. The real svabhāva of Brahman is cetana svabhāva. But the world, which is the effect of Brahman, has both a real and an apparent svabhāva. The real svabhāva is the same as that of Brahman and the apparent svabhāva is 'appearing as acetana' which isn't a true svabhāva that only appears because of ignorance (avidyā). Avidyā here is mistaking the absolutely apparent svabhāva of acetanatva of the world for its real, true or natural svabhāva. Hence, for Ś, cetana Brahman alone is the cause of the world and never acetana pradhāna or prakr̥ti which can be seen in SB (I.1.5 ; I.1.9 ; I.1.11 ; II.1.1 etc.) and in many other places. All these passages explicitly and unambiguously declare that nothing which is acetana is the cause of the world. Furthermore, he also said that Brahman is the non-different (abhinna) material as well as the efficient cause (nimmittopādāna kāraṇa) of the world.
In SB (II.1.16), Ś states,

Just as the cause, Brahman, never ceases to exist at all the thee points of time[past, present, future], so also the effect, the world never ceases to exist at all three points of time.

But we see that most of the subsequent commentators of BS(such as Vācaspati Miśra) makes quite subtle and profound mistakes in understanding these assertions of Ś and instead choose to regard māyā, taken to be acetana, as the cause of the material world. Although Ś does say clearly that māyā is the power (śakti) of Brahman and without this Brahman will not be able to create at all, but he also mentions the relation of non-difference (ananyatva) b/w māya and the possessor of this power(śakta), Brahman. This power of Brahman, is non-different from Brahman and doesn't possess a separate svabhāva of it's own that is different from Brahman. As the natural power of Brahman, māyā should share the same svabhāva with Brahman, although we may not think so due to our avidyā.

But still most commentators such as Vācaspati and later Advaitins extremely uniformly choose to view māyā as the acetana or jaḍa cause of the jaḍa world. Due to these commentaries most lay students of Advaita have the view that Brahman isn't the cause, and it's actionless, which is against the view of Ś.
Why did those commentators of SB do this construing of the SB?

This view of the commentators is to do with misunderstanding some of the terms and concepts used by Ś. For eg. they erred in grasping the meaning of the term acetana by Ś. Acetana can mean either (i) what totally lacks caitany or (ii) what does not manifest caitanya. Ś* declares ātman alone exists and whatever that exists is also ātman alone (sarvātmabhāva or sarvātmaikatva), anything that is acetana in the sense (i) above is completely ruled about by him. But unfortunately, this meaning that is clearly ruled about by Ś is taken as the normal meaning of the term acetana by the commentators exactly as ordinary worldly people do in their lives. Anātman, a merely wrong idea as per Ś, came now to be reified and confused for a real entity, and the cause of this allegedly real entity viz. māyā, also came to be regarded as acetana or jaḍa, since causes and effects, according to the commentators shared the same basic nature (ananya). And thus, māyā came to be accepted by the commentators as the acetana śakti or creative power that is totally unconscious material cause of the material universe. This strongly contradicts Ś's view of causes and effects in SB, as stated before. All duality which Ś clearly declared to be merely imaginary (kalpita) now came to be viewed by his commentators as a very real and existent duality. To ensure, that this new reality didn't threaten the genuine and sole reality of Brahman, it was declared by them to a a vyāvahārika reality, but it was still real, and so they asserted that the ignorance of ātman was totally destroyed by Brahmānubhava, where the physical universe of real duality also totally vanished or completely disappeared or got sublated. (bādhita)

Some issues arising out of misinterpretation of SB among the commentators were sublation of world appearance while its cause māyā very much continues to exist as a problem and the other being mithyā prapañca. Though mithyā, māyā was still a real acetana, for the later Advaitins, which was different in nature from the cetana Brahman and hence it is become a serious problem. So, in order to resolve such issues, later Advaitins not only held the view that mithyā jagat disappears after Brahmānubhava, but also held that this very idea of mithyātva of the world is itself a mithyā from the highest point of view.

Usually, if an incorrect idea is formed by a philosopher that takes him/her to a troublesome situation, the philosophers may not usually quickly detect the defect in his/her idea and give it up. Most of the time, he/she may modify the wrong idea or bring in some other ideas to balance the bad situation and overcome the difficulty. Although the newly brought ideas are correct, the problems will still remain since the initial idea, which is a foundation, is itself incorrect and modified solution doesn't have foundation in pure truth. This is what has happened actually in the long history of Advaita doctrine after Ś.

It would be extremely unfair to blindly attribute that Ś actually maintained in his witings that this universe is indeed a real acetana entity created by Brahman power of māyā which is also acetana in nature. Ś didn't say so anywhere in SB, despite most of his commentators and later Advaitins saying so. Still, it is very astonishing to find that such a misconception not only exists but also has taken deep roots besides enjoying extremely wide acceptance among many Advaita scholars in India and abroad.

For further more detailed analysis and investigation, as to why this happened and why it has been unnoticed and uncorrected by many scholars for such a long time, I would refer to Rao (2011, 1996).

References & Further Reading

  • Rao, S. (2011). Chapter 2 Advaita Doctrine: Preliminaries. In Advaita: A Contemporary Critique. (pp.17-50) Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198079811.003.0002
  • Rao, S. (1996). Two “Myths” In Advaita. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 24(3), 265–279. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01792026
  • Radhakrishnan, S. (1953). The Principal Upanishads. Allen & Unwin
  • Śaṅkarācārya & Gambhirananda (1965). Eight Upanishads. (2nd ed.). Advaita Ashrama
  • Bādarāyanạ & Radhakrishnan, S.(1968). The Brahma Sūtra, The Philosophy of Spiritual Life. Greenwood Press.
  • Radhakrishnan, S.(1963). The Bhagavadgītā (2nd ed.). Allen & Unwin.
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    @devibhakt Good and evil are both a product of avidyā, both are unreal. One who is ignorant can only see the acetana and not the cetana Brāhmaṇa which is the cause of all. This cause, i.e. Brāhmaṇa is without any adjuncts. The problem of evil is not valid in the framework of Śaṅkara's Advaita because it only applies to the personal God, i.e. Īśvara, however Īśvara is just a part of māyā and not the ultimate reality. Other than that, there is a doctrine of karma at play, which may be escaped your notice. Brāhmaṇa is neither good, nor bad. It's beyond all those qualities.
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 7:17
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    Most of the gods/goddesses you are mentioning in the Advaita framework are all under māyā and they also fall in the sways of karma i.e. they can't interfere with the karma of sentient beings. They don't have an existence of their own. Only Brāhmaṇa has the fundamental existence. There is a reason why Kr̥ṣṇa in Mahābhārata wasn't able to go against the karma and stop war, that's a lot to do with him being an embodiment of Īśvara, due to which he was restricted to māyā. Note, this is an Advaitic answer, those of Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita and other schools will answer differently on this issue.
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 7:21
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    @devibhakt The questions you are asking are not something really problematic in Advaita, but they are still good questions. The answers to these though are too big for the comments. So, I think it might be better if you frame a question regarding free will in the karma doctrine of Advaita, and avidyā, about which you have doubt.
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 9:03
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 10:24
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    @devibhakt Actually, answering it by Prakr̥ti and just māyā isn't sufficient enough, since this is not the Saṅkhya in context, but Advaita. Perhaps, if you frame the question in a unique way and keep it specific to Advaita, it won't be duplicate.
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 20:38

Brahman is not an anthropomorphic deity. It can't be defined, has no mind and so It does not act. It is described as neti neti. This is made clear both in the Upanishads, in the Itihasas and in the Puranas.

Nature of Brahman

When men shall roll up space (akasa) as if it were a piece of hide, then there will be end of misery without one's cultivating the knowledge of the Lord, who is without parts, without actions, tranquil, blameless, unattached, the supreme bridge to Immortality, and like a fire that has consumed all its fuel

Svetasvatara Upanishad VI.19-20

Manu said, ‘Brahman is not an object of touch, or of hearing, or of taste, or of sight, or of smell, or of any deductive inference from the Known. Only the Understanding (when withdrawn from everything else) can attain to it. All objects that the mind apprehends through the senses are capable of being withdrawn into the mind; the mind can be withdrawn into the understanding; the Understanding can be withdrawn into the soul, and the Soul into the Supreme.’

Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CCIV

Yajnavalkya said: O Gargi, it is the supreme being that the non-yogins call gross but, in fact, that is eternal and wonderful lord; one that is not long, not red, that has no head, that has no setting, hence that has a lasting taste, that has no contact, no smell, no juice, no eyes, no ears, neither speech nor mind, no brilliance, no proof [or magnitude], no (worldly) happiness, no name, no race, no death, no age, no ailment; that is nectarine, that is expressed by the word Om, that is immortal, that has neither a predecessor nor a successor, that is endless and non-external. It eats something. It does not eat anything. ..

Linga Purana II.9.53–54

Sri Sankaracharya has also stated the same idea in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya.

But that Brahman (is known from the Upanishads), (It) being the object of their fullest import.

Brahma Sutra I.i.4

...for in all the Upanishads the texts become fully reconciled when they are accepted as establishing this very fact in their fullest import. (As for instance): "O amiable one, this universe, before its creation, was but Existence, one withot a second" (Chandogya Upanishad VI.ii.1), "Before creation this universe was but the Self that is one" (Aiterya Upanishad I.i.1), "That Brahman is without prior or posterior, without interior or exterior (i.e., homogeneous and without a second). "This Self, the perceiver of everything is Brahman" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad II.v.19), "All that is in front is Brahman the immortal" (Mundaka Upanishad II.ii.11), etc. Besides, when the words in the Upanishadic sentences become fully ascertained as but revealing the nature of Brahman, it is not proper to fancy some other meaning; for that will result in rejecting something established by the Vedas and accepting some other thing not intended by them. And it cannot be held that those words have for their ultimate purpose only a delineation of the nature of the agent (viz the performer of the rites), for there are such Vedic texts as "(But when to the knower of Brahman everything has become the Self) then ... what should one see and through what?" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad II.iv.14), which deny action, instrument and result. .....

Brahma Sutra Bhasya I.i.4 of Sri Sankaracharya translated by Swami Gambhirananda


Other answers have already provided sufficient citations for Brahman is actionless, like Nishkalam Nishkriyam Shaantam Niravadyam Niranjanam (SvetUp- 6.19)

An action's relativity, and its continuity presupposes an actionless absolute Brahman (which Kenopanishad refers to).

Also ,श्रोत्रस्य श्रोत्रं , मनसो मनो यत् is One, This same idea is found in CU 6.2.1

sadeva somyedam agra āsīd ekamevādvitīyam | taddhaika āhurasadevedamagra āsīd ekamevādvitīyaṃ tasmādasataḥ sajjāyata || 6.2.1 || one without a second

so, how come this perception of Brāhmaṇa not being an active agent enter into the mind of later Advaitins, because it surely wasn't Śaṅkara's view at all. (@Bingming, how is this reconciled?)

This may not be the case, as we find in several Prakarana Granthas by Shankaracharya say, Atma bodha verse 37, Vivekachudamani 491

Nirguṇo niṣkriyo nityo nirvikalpo nirañjanaḥ. Nirvikāro nirākāro nityamukto’smi nirmalaḥ..AB34..

Indeed, I am other than the seer, hearer, speaker, doer and Experiencer. I am eternal and unbroken, beyond activity, boundless, unattached and infinite, the essence of knowledge. VC491

world is an effect of Brāhmaṇ as in CU 6.1.4 could be the basis of Vivarta vada.

yathā somyaikena mṛtpiṇḍena sarvaṃ mṛnmayaṃ vijñātaṃ syādvācārambhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ mṛttiketyeva satyam || 6.1.4 ||
O Somya, it is like this: By knowing a single lump of earth you know all objects made of earth. All changes are mere words, in name only. But earth is the reality.
vācārambhaṇam nāmadheyam vikāraḥ all changes are mere words, in name only; mṛttika iti eva satyam, the earth is the reality.

As there is no other entity other than Brahman, Brahman by whose inscrutable power Maya, appears as creation. It is understood as Vivarta Vada of Advaita.

All duality which Ś clearly declared to be merely imaginary (kalpita) now came to be viewed by his commentators as a very real and existent duality.

Vivekachudamani 109 says

Maya is neither existent nor non-existent nor partaking of both characters; neither same nor different nor both; neither composed of parts nor an indivisible whole nor both. She is the most wonderful and cannot be described in words.”

Maya (the word occurs in (Svet. Up 4.10)) the anirvachaniya (either real or non real), explained as part of BG 2.16, cannot be a second real entity, (Sat) so as to say real and existent duality.

Is Advaita refuted by Brahma Sutras?

It is as though the commentators were off the track, and fell in line with sankya (where Prakrithi is a separate entity other than Brahman, creates its own evolutes, with the power received from purusha who is non-attached to the creation).

In the perspective of Gita,

What does Actionlessness connote

कर्मण्यकर्म यः पश्येदकर्मणि च कर्म यः। स बुद्धिमान् मनुष्येषु स युक्तः कृत्स्नकर्मकृत्।। He who finds inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is the wise one [Possessed of the knowledge of Brahman] among men; he is engaged in yoga and is a performer of all actions! (Swami Gambirananda) BG 4.18

Shankaracharyas Commentary

the trees on the shore which are motionless? appear to move in the opposite direction to a man who is in traveling. Moving objects that are very far away appear to be stationary or motionless. Even so in the case of the Self inaction is mistaken for action and, action for inaction.The Self is actionless (Akarta or nondoer? Nishkriya or without work).
(Translation Swami Gambirananda)

In the context of the analogy, one is well aware of the absolute stand point (that the tree or the post does not move, though it appears so). In reality the absolute stand point is not known. Hence, it is hard to accept the action is an illusion.

न मां कर्माणि लिम्पन्ति न मे कर्मफले स्पृहा। इति मां योऽभिजानाति कर्मभिर्न स बध्यते।।4.14।

Her , the omniscient Supreme reality, though creates sustains and dissolves the universe, identifies with the Self (Brahman), and not with the action (karma phale na sprha, there is no hankering for the results, hence not tainted by the action - karmani limpanti).

In the same way, the actions do not taint a Jiva (Actionlessness) who does not hanker for karma phala, by identifying with the action (rather who identifies with the self) and what follows is, jñānāgniḥ sarva-karmāṇi bhasma-sāt kurute tathā

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    Thanks for the follow-up. Good answer, this continues and adds upto mine. I am happy to know that there are people who are trying to critically analyze Advaita rather than going the way of the traditional post Śaṅkara Advaitins as is often the norm.Śaṅkara denied duality in the first place by stating his doctrine of causality where he showed māyā and Brāhmaṇa have the same svabhāva of sentience and our perception of the insentience of māyā is due to avidyā. Later advaitins on the other hand didn't deny the duality, they accepted it, & proposed bādhita of māyā which was rejected by Śaṅkara
    – Bingming
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 2:27

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