The Pañcadaśī

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 04/10/2020

Last modified: 04/10/2020

The Pañcadaśī is a Hindu philosophical text, in the tradition of advaita vedanta, also known as non-dualism.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

The Pañcadaśī is a Hindu philosophical text, in the tradition of advaita vedanta, also known as non-dualism.

The meaning of ‘advaita’ is found in the word itself: a meaning not (just like in English if we say that someone is an atheist or atypical) and dvaita meaning dual. The duality referred to by this term is not just one duality, but all dualities, all apparent separation and distinction. In simple terms we might say that the advaitic position is: ‘all things are really one thing’, or ‘it’s all one’.

The Pañcadaśī sets out to explain this position over the course of fifteen chapters, which are broken into three groups of five chapters (in fact the word pañcadaśī means fifteen in Sanskrit!).

The English chapter titles below are taken from the translation by Swami Swahananda, published by Sri Ramakrishna Math in 1967, which is the version we will be referring to throughout.

Viveka-panchaka

  • I. The Differentiation of the Real Principle
  • II. The Differentiation of the Five Elements
  • III. The Differentiation of the Five Sheaths
  • IV. The Differentiation of Duality
  • V. Fixing the meaning of the Great Sayings

Dipa-panchaka

  • VI. The Lamp of the Picture
  • VII. The Lamp of Perfect Satisfaction
  • VIII. The Lamp of Kūṭastha
  • IX. The Lamp of Meditation
  • X. The Lamp of the Theatre

Ananda-panchaka

  • XI. The Bliss of Yoga
  • XII. The Bliss of the Self
  • XIII. The Bliss of Non-duality
  • XIV. The Bliss of Knowledge
  • XV. The Bliss of Objects

Context of the text

The Pañcadaśī was written in the 14th Century CE by a man named Vidyaranya, the head monk of a Hindu monastery in south western India (the Sringeri Math, thought to have been established by Śankara). The text is undated, but based on the dates Vidyaranya is known to have been at the monastery, we can say it was likely composed between 1377 and 1386.

The text is written with the intention of providing instruction and support to those who are learning about advaita, and aims to explain key philosophical concepts in a simple way using both scriptural references and logical arguments.

The primary route to liberation from suffering, according to the advaitic perspective, is knowledge; knowledge of what is real and what is unreal, and since knowledge can be taught, the fifteen chapters represent an instruction manual for liberation (or moksha). As we’ll see, they move through various topics, but ultimate all the chapters are attempting to explain one simple message - the differences we see every day are superficial, behind them is something unchanging and really real (Real with a capital R).

Vidyaranya will walk us through a variety of examples and justifications for this position, so let’s begin with chapter one…

Viveka-panchaka

The first five chapters are focused on discriminating the real from the non-real.

Chapter I

In the first chapter, Vidyaranya begins by honoring his guru, Sri Sankarananda, and then lays out his central point almost immediately: he states that everything we experience appears to be different due to various unique characteristics (a dog barking is different to a bird chirping, for example), but the awareness or consciousness of those phenomena is not different (I.3).

In other words, I might experience a lot of different things, but all those experiences actually happen inside my head, or within my consciousness - I hear a dog, I hear a bird - the barking and the chirping might be different, but the ‘I’ who experiences them is the same in both cases.

This I, or ‘the self’ is also the same in dreams, where temporary phenomena rise and fall, but the experiencing consciousness is still present. In fact Vidyaranya goes further, and argues that the self remains the same even in deep, dreamless sleep. His argument here is that when we wake up from deep sleep, we remember not experiencing anything (I.5). Whether this is actually what happens, or we simply have an absence of memory, is perhaps difficult to say, but it certainly serves Vidyaranya’s point to establish a continuity of identity throughout all three states of being.

Not only are we the same self throughout the three states of being, but this self is also timeless. Vidyaranya jumps into a strong statement in verse 7, claiming:

Through the many months, years, ages and world cycles, past and future, consciousness is the same; it neither rises nor sets…

So this consciousness, which is our true self underneath all of our experience, is also the same consciousness that has always existed - this is central to the advaitic argument that in reality there is only one thing.

He then goes on to establish three key points - the individual self has the nature of existence, consciousness, and bliss, just like the three key characteristics of Brahman, the philosophical entity representing the entire universe in advaita Vedanta.

In verses 11-14, Vidyaranya attempts to explain why there can be both the sense of love for the self (or bliss), while there is also a pursuit of satisfaction through worldly phenomena - in short, he adopts a middle ground, arguing that we have some awareness of the blissful nature of the self, and this is what inclines us towards love for the self, but we are only partially aware, our awareness is obstructed by ignorance, and so we mistakenly search for happiness in external things.

From verse 15 onwards, we move into a highly technical explanation for how the universe is divided into its apparent diversity.

Prakrti (i.e. primordial substance) is that in which there is the reflection of Brahman, that is pure consciousness and bliss and is composed of sattva, rajas and tamas (in a state of homogeneity). It is of two kinds.

We can imagine that Prakriti is a sort of amorphous substance composed of three gunas (or elements) - these are found elsewhere in Hindu philosophy, and are often translated goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and ignorance (tamas), however there are other meanings that are roughly analogous (e.g. intelligence, motion, inertia, etc).

When Brahman, the principal source of existence, consciousness, and bliss, is reflected in the movements of Prakriti, the reflection can be made of different combinations of the three gunas.

Dipa-panchaka

The next five chapters deal with understanding the nature of the self as pure consciousness.

Ananda-panchaka

The last five chapters discuss the blissful nature of Brahman.

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