Reflections on shaMkara’s Commentary on chhAndogya upaniShad (VI.ii.1)
‘As in the world someone, who in the forenoon had seen a lump of earth spread by a potter desirous of making pot, plate, etc., he, on perceiving in that very place different products like pot, plate, etc., while returning in the afternoon after visiting a village would say, “These pots, plates, etc., were but earth in the forenoon,” so also it is said even here, “In the beginning this was Existence alone.”‘
It is important to clarify what shaMkara is saying and what shaMkara is not saying. What we have here is essentially an analogy. The idea is the deduction that we make on seeing the before and after of the village potter’s products. We infer both material and efficient causality from the experience. From manifest or modified existence we infer that there must have been undifferentiated existence.
A distinction is made between the possibility of pure being of itself and by itself giving rise to manifest reality and the existence of some other force also that helped out. This is the purport of ‘one only, without a second: there was just existence’.
The vaisheshika-s also have this idea of existence in the sense of things existing. For them, existence implies the existence of something.
shaMkara admits this to be the case but he says that the vaisheshika-s do not admit that before the particular existence of something, it existed in a real way as a potency: ‘For according to them a product has no Existence before its creation.’
This is the Satkaryavada doctrine that he is referring to. What shaMkara means by existence is the pure unmanifest that is not just the historical ancestor of the present state of affairs. We may ask and the Hadron Collider may answer what the nature of existence was in a physical sense prior to space and time. Is shaMkara speaking about this physical origin or the metaphysical, i.e. existence as such?
Satkaryavada applies to the physical in the sense of potency. There is implicit in potency that sense of the non-difference of cause and effect. What of the reality of things now? Is there a metaphysical analogy of causality? In other words: is there a non-difference of pure being and manifest beings right here and now in the present? Is manifest existence non-different from the unmanifest? Is there a difference to be seen between a normal product, i.e. with historical ancestors, and creation as such?
For a start, creation is beginningless according to the veda-s because time is also a creation and the doctrine of karma has beginninglessness implicit in it. (Cf. brahma sUtra bhashya (II.i.36))
Shankara’s thesis is that there must be a real connection between creation and what was prior to it. We distinguish between prior in the sense of temporally prior and causally prior. The concept of efficient causality usually implies temporal priority. What Shankara, however, is considering is the unity of being. If prior to the existence of creation there was mere non-existence, then we have no intelligible connection between the two. One must flow out of the other.
That there is a flow from the unmanifest to the manifest is the position of shaMkara. The notion of contingency has a part to play here also. If created things are contingent or dependent on other things for their existence, it must mean that there exists a necessary being. Not that creation itself is necessary but that once in existence, there is a question mark over it: ‘It is illogical to imagine that there was non-existence before Creation.’ (chhandogya upaniShad (VI.ii.1))
brahma sUtra bhashya (II.i.6): ‘For all things are held by us – to have Brahman as their material cause… for it has been established that the purport of the scriptures is that Brahman is the material as well as the efficient cause of the universe.’
How can non-existence serve as the basis for existence is what the text of the second half of the sruti (cf. above) seems to be saying: ‘In the beginning this was non-existence alone, one only, without a second. From that non-existence issued existence.’ This is what has to be reconciled with the previous portion of the sruti: ‘O good looking one, in the beginning this was existence alone, One only, without a second.’
We have the conflict between common sense intuition that the predecessor of whatever it was that existed no longer exists when the new form emerges and the metaphysical insight of Satkaryavada of the non-difference of cause and effect. On the one hand, we see that the seed is no more when the sprout arrives; and on the other hand, we see that this particular sort of seed produces just this sort of sprout or that potency is the bridge of being.
The idea at issue here is the nihilist one (Buddhist Sunyavada) of the non-inherent existence of something that arises out of causes and conditions; the contingent has no existence of itself. Shankara takes the normal view of existence and holds that no matter how we reach back into antecedents there is always something that is. Even ‘consciousness talk’ cannot evade the notion of one ‘idea’ giving rise to another; Existence is what there was before creation: ‘Since it is Existence itself that was there as the object denoted by the word “idam” and the idea “This”. It is just like the continuance of earth itself as the object denoted by the words and ideas “lump”, “pot”, etc.’ (chhandogya upaniShad (VI.ii))
The essence of the analogy of material identity can be stated in the following terms:
‘Even though a pot is different from a lump, and a lump is different from a pot, still, the lump and the pot are not different from earth. Therefore, the lump and the pot are nothing but earth. Therefore, pot, etc., are merely different configurations of earth, etc.’ However, a cow is different from a horse, or a horse from a cow. The various vessels are but different configurations of earth, etc.
‘Though all these things – plates, pots, vessels – generally are different from each other, they are still earth. He is making clear that this is true of those things that are made of the same material, i.e. clay, but that it is not the case for those things which have a different material basis. A horse and a cow are different, for instance.
‘Similarly all these are but different shapes of Existence, and it is reasonable that before creation, Existence alone was there, because without exception all shapes are dependent on speech alone.’
It might be objected that there is a great difference between ‘existence’ which is an abstraction and ‘clay’ which is not. That is true and precisely to the point because what is at issue is an analogy and not a parallel.
If being as such is undifferentiated, how does it present itself in so many different forms? The forms, says shaMkara, are projected on to it or superimposed on it. Therefore, the forms must in some manner exist before they are projected on to pure being. There are limiting adjuncts but why do the limiting adjuncts have the shape that they do? The very condensed observations in bRRihadaraNyaka upaniShad (II.iv.11) may be pertinent here: ‘The organs are but modes of the objects in order to perceive them, as is the case with a lamp.’ The implication of this is that once the limiting adjuncts are overcome then the organs are overcome.
The central question is: How does Existence which is undifferentiated become differentiated; how do those particular shapes of existence come about?
‘How did That (Existence) visualize? This is being answered: Syam, I shall become; bahu, many; Prajayeva, I shall be born excellently,’ like earth taking the shapes of pots, etc., or ropes, etc. taking the shapes of snakes, etc. imagined by the intellect.
‘Objection: In that case whatever is perceived is unreal, like a rope perceived in the shape of a snake, etc.
‘Reply: No, since it is Existence itself that is perceived otherwise through the duality of different forms, therefore, there is no non-existence anywhere. That is what we say.’ (chhandogya upaniShad (VI.ii.3)
‘Similarly it is logical that from the constituents of sat, Existence, imagined by the intellect, there can appear a changeful configuration.’ (chhandogya upaniShad (VI.ii.2))
This is shaMkara’s expression of the unity, which lies beneath the multiplicity of manifestation i.e. the substratum. When the reality of the substratum is realized then the substratum becomes the reality. It becomes the reality because it alone is the unchanging: ‘Similarly words and ideas with regard to all other transformation cease for those people who have the discriminating knowledge about existence.’