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As I discuss in the this answer, 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 which summarizes and systematizes the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. You can read the Brahma Sutras here. In any case, Adhyaya 3 Pada 3 of the Brahma Sutras describes the Brahma Vidyas, 32 lessons found in the various Upanishads which can each lead you to Brahman if you meditate on them. You can see the full list of 32 Vidyas here.

Now as I discuss in my questions here and here, one of the 32 Brahma Vidyas is known as the Panchagni Vidya, and it is found in the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads. Among other things, it describes the path of souls to Brahmaloka. Here is how the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads describes this journey:

Those who thus know this, and those who in the forest worship faith and the True, go to light (arkis), from light to day, from day to the increasing half, from the increasing half to the six months when the sun goes to the north, from those six months to the world of the Devas (Devaloka), from the world of the Devas to the sun, from the sun to the place of lightning. When they have thus reached the place of lightning a spirit comes near them, and leads them to the worlds of ... Brahman. In these worlds of Brahman they dwell exalted for ages. There is no returning for them.

In his commentary on the Brahma Sutras, Adi Shankaracharya argues that the "worlds of Brahman" being referred to here are merely the worlds of the god Hiranyagarbha or Brahma, not the supreme Brahman, because it's impossible to "go" to the supreme Brahman, since it is omnipresent. In the course of this discussion, Adi Shankaracharya says this:

When the reabsorption of the effected Brahman world draws near, the souls in which meanwhile perfect knowledge has sprung up proceed, together with Hiranyagarbha the ruler of that world, to 'what is higher than that i.e. to the pure highest place of Vishnu. This is the release by successive steps which we have to accept on the basis of the scriptural declarations about the non-return of the souls. For we have shown that the Highest cannot be directly reached by the act of going.

By the "highest place of Vishnu", I think Adi Shankaracharya means Moksha; here is what he says in his commentary on the Katha Upanishad:

The man of knowledge attains 'the highest place of Vishnu', i.e. the nature of the all-pervading Brahman, the Paramatman known as Vasudeva (the Self-luminous).

So my question is, why would Adi Shankaracharya use "proceeding to the highest place of Vishnu" as a metaphor for attaining Brahman, in the midst of discussing why an Upanishad passage that talks about proceeding to the world of Brahman is not referring to attaining Brahman?

Is Adi Shankaracharya intentionally doing some kind of word play, composing a passage that uses the metaphor of "going" to the place of Brahman in the midst of discussing another passage that talks about literally "going" to the place of Brahman? Have any other Advaitins commented on this?

  • Why shouldn't Shankara refer to proceeding to the highest place of Vishnu" as a metaphor for attaining Brahman? the very Upanishad statements clearly say so e.g. Katha Upanishad "So dhvanah param apnoti tad Vishoh paramam padam" – user808 Sep 19 '15 at 11:57
  • @Krishna I just find it odd that he would use that particular metaphor in the course of discussing a passage where he argues that "going to the place of Brahman" does not mean attaining Brahman. – Keshav Srinivasan Sep 19 '15 at 14:01
  • @Krishna By the way, I just posted a question on the Nyasa Vidya of the Mahanarayana Upanishad, which is the basis for Sharanagati: hinduism.stackexchange.com/q/8709/36 – Keshav Srinivasan Sep 24 '15 at 14:54
  • Simply because He had to explain something inexplicable in words. Such contradictions are obvious in such cases. – user17294 Jan 20 at 13:13
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From the excerpt you have quoted about Shankara's commentary on Brahma Sutras, it is quite clear why he is speaking about proceeding to "what is higher than that i.e. to the pure highest place of Vishnu."

The Brahma Sutra explains the path through which one goes to Brahmaloka. But, going to Brahmaloka is not same as Moksha (Realization of Mahavakya). Though, a person who goes to Brahmaloka does not return to earth, yet he still have limitation left.

That is what Shankara is pointing. Further, he is showing how these people who attain Brahmaloka will ultimately attain Brahma-Jnana. This is the path of Krama Mukti- Stage by Stage liberation.

He is pointing out that, through the Vidyas, one attain Brahmaloka. And then, even those people must attain Atma-Jnana which they would have attained by the time the end of Hiranyagarba nears. Hence, they along with the Hiranyagarba will attain Atma-Jnana and merge into Non-dual Brahman.

Vishnu means "All pervading". In other words, non-duality. There is no second independent entity other than Brahman. Hence, reaching supreme state of Vishnu means, attaining Atma-Jnana.

  • Shankara in his Katha Upamishad bhasya explains the same statement he has quoted in brahma sutras as follows ParamaM padaM” is explained by Shankara (Katha Upanishad Bhashya, 1.3.9) as “prakRiShTam padaM sthAnaM satattvamityetat”, which indicates both an abode as well as the state attained therein due to the grace of Ishvara, Vishnu. Shankara could have used the words like Siva. Brahma, hiranyagarbha, shalti etc which are all equally, non - dual etc. – user808 Sep 20 '15 at 20:04
  • So, it is not just non- duality. But, he is accepting that the Place Vishnu which is called paramapadam is equally eternal i.e. it is a abode and a state. Shankara chooses this statement "tad Vishnoh paramam padam" very aptly and not any thing related rudra, siva or other gods – user808 Sep 20 '15 at 20:08
  • Shankara knows that only Words like Vishnu, Vasudeva and Narayana alone truly describes the Vyapakatva of Para brahman not other names, even though he takes non duality route. – user808 Sep 20 '15 at 20:14
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    That is a later day interpretation! The term Vishnu literally means "All pervading" and hence, Shankara uses that term in the context and not other terms. Because, he is speaking about how ultimate Moksha does not refer to going to any abode, instead refers to becoming all-pervading. Anyways, you should study Various commentaries written on the Brahmasutra Bhashya of Shankara. That will clear your doubt. No use debating here! – Nithin Sridhar Sep 21 '15 at 0:12
  • So, you accept that Vishnu means means all pervading. Siva, Rudra, Parvati pati etc dont...i gave the proof from Shankaras own Katha upanishad bhasya...You also read Shankaras bhasyas followed by commentaries of Anandagiri etc on it. It will clear all your ill found theories on Vishnu...Good to see that there is someone who is not a Shavaite or Shakta who is not a Pseudo Advaitin unlike many others, atleast at the first instance it seems so. – user808 Sep 21 '15 at 6:35
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ParamaM padaM” is explained by Shankara (Katha Upanishad Bhashya, 1.3.9) as “prakRiShTam padaM sthAnaM satattvamityetat”, which indicates both an abode as well as the state attained therein due to the grace of Ishvara, Vishnu.

Please try to check up the following sections in Shankara’s prasthAna-trayI bhAShyas and other advaitic works where you may get some clarifications:

Chandogya Upanishad Bhashya, 3.13.7 followed by 3.12.6.

Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 1.1.24. Anandagiri/Govindananda’s comments therein.

Brahma Sutra Bhashya, 4.4.18-20.

Gita Bhashya, 15.4, 15.6, 18.62. Anandagiri’s gloss to 18.62 above.

Madhusudana Sarasvati’s Advaita Siddhi and Gauda Brahmananda Saraswati’s Laghu Chandrika, Second paricCheda, brahmaNo nirAkAratva nirUpaNa

Madhusudana Sarasvati in Gudhartha Dipika, 8.15-16 and 7.24.

Sridhara Swami in Srimad Bhagavata commentary, 2.5.39.

Maheshvara Tirtha’s explanation of “brahmaloka” as Vaikuntha loka in rAmAyaNa bhAShya, bAla kANDa, prathama (first) sarga.

Maheshvara Tirtha’s explanation of jaTAyu mokSha in AraNya kANDa.

Narayana Bhattathiri’s description of Vaikuntha-pada in Narayaneeyam 7.4, and Desha Mangala’s commentary.

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