Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Dharmaskandhah and Brahmasamsthah: A Study of Chandogya Upanisad 2.23.1

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Dharmaskandhah and Brahmasamsthah: A Study of Chandogya Upanisad 2.23.1

Article excerpt


1.1 Chandogya Upanisad 2.23.1 has been singled out for special attention by Indian theologians and exegetes, as well as by modern scholars, because they consider it to be the vedic basis for and the earliest evidence of the central Brahmanical institution of the four asramas. I give here the Sanskrit text together with Hume's English translation,(1) marking each phrase with a Roman numeral to facilitate reference to each:

A.i. There are three branches of duty.

ii. Sacrifice, study of the Vedas, and alms-giving - that is the first.

iii. Austerity, indeed, is the second.

iv. A student of sacred knowledge dwelling in the house of a teacher, settling himself permanently in the house of a teacher, is the third.

v. All these become possessors of meritorious worlds.

B. vi. He who stands firm in Brahma attains immortality.

1.2 Arguing against the position of the "Jaiminiyas," that is, the followers of the Mimamsa tradition, Samkara (in his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras [VeS 3.4.17-20]) cites this passage as the vedic basis for the asrama system and for the legitimacy of the celibate modes of life, especially that of the wandering ascetic. Commenting on VeS 3.4.20, he presents two possible interpretations of our text: A) The three branches of dharma include all four asramas - the first branch comprises the asrama of a householder, and the third, that of a vedic student, while the second refers in common to the asramas of both a forest hermit (vaikhanasa) and a wandering ascetic (parivrat). According to this hypothesis, the brahmasamsthah refers to a person in any of the four asramas who is firmly established in Brahman.(2) B) The three branches refer only to the first three asramas, the second branch comprising only the forest hermit. According to this hypothesis, the brahmasamsthah refers to the fourth asrama, that is, the wandering ascetic. Dismissing the first alternative, Samkara argues in favor of the second and concludes: "Therefore, those who belong to the first three asramas obtain worlds earned by merit. Only the remaining one, that is, the wandering ascetic, obtains immortality" (tasmat purve traya asraminah punyalokabhajah parisisyamanah parivrad evamrtatvabhak).

In the commentary on the CU (2.23.1) ascribed to Samkara, however, the author expresses a very different view.(3) At the beginning of the commentary (p. 100), he says that the second branch of dharma is "a hermit or a wandering ascetic, although not an ascetic who is established in Brahman but only one who is established in just the dharma of his asrama, because the vedic passage assigns immortality to one who is established in Brahman" (tapasah parivrad va na brahmasamsthah asramadharmamatrasamsthah brahmasamsthasya tu amrtatvasravanat dvitiyah dharmaskandhah). Later in the commentary, however, he rejects the notion that the second branch could include a wandering ascetic, taking the latter to be simply the brahmasamsthah (p. 103). Although the text is somewhat unclear and Samkara can be seen as contradicting himself, he appears to make a distinction here between a wandering ascetic who belongs to the fourth asrama (see p. 106 of the commentary) and one who is brahtmasamsthah and therefore beyond all asramas. Indeed, he calls such a person by the technical term atyasramin (p. 105; see Sprockhoff 1981: 82; Olivelle 1993: 222-32). Thus, in his commentary on the CU 2.23.1, Samkara appears to include all four asramas in the three branches of dharma; in any case, he considers the brahmasamsthah as beyond the four asramas.

Bhaskara, in his commentary on VeS 3.4.20, cites "the view of some," a view that is identical to Samkara's, and goes on to present a contrary interpretation similar to that of Samkara's opponent. Although he presents the latter as the view of "others," the arguments he puts forward in its favor make it clear that this second view is Bhaskara's own. Here he argues that the "three skandhas" comprise all the asramas and that the final statement regarding a brahmasamsthah applies to a person in any asrama. …

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