kolam1.jpg (10417 bytes) An Introduction to The Brahma Sutras kolam1.jpg (10417 bytes)      


“athAto  Brahmajij~nAsA”

(Now therefore the Enquiry into Brahman)


VedAnta philosophy acknowledges the PrasthAna Traya as its three authoritative primary sources. The texts comprising the PrasthAna Traya are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Brahma sUtra. The Upanishads are the sruti prasthAna, the revealed texts (sruti - that which is heard); the Bhagavad-Gita is the smriti prasthAna, composed by sages based on their understanding of the VedAs (smriti - that which is remembered); the Brahma sUtra is the nyAya prasthAna, the logical text that sets forth the philosophy systematically (nyAya - logic/order). No study of VedAnta is considered complete without a close examination of the PrasthAna Traya.

While the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita are authoritative VedAnta texts, it is in the Brahma sUtra that the teachings of VedAnta are set forth in a systematic and logical order. The Brahma sUtra is known by many names: it is also called the VedAnta sUtra, Uttara-mimamsa sUtra, Shariraka sUtra and the Bhikshu sUtra.

The Brahma sUtra consists of 555 aphorisms or sUtras, in 4 chapters, each chapter being divided into 4 sections each. The first chapter (Samanvaya: harmony) explains that all the VedAntic texts talk of Brahman, the ultimate reality, which is the goal of life. The second chapter (Avirodha: non-conflict) discusses and refutes the possible objections against VedAnta philosophy. The third chapter (SAdhana: the means) describes the process by which ultimate emancipation can be achieved. The fourth chapter (Phala: the fruit) talks of the state that is achieved in final emancipation.

Indian tradition identifies BAdarAyaNa, the author of the Brahma SUtra, with VyAsa, the compiler of the VedAs. Many commentaries have been written on this text, the earliest extant one being the one by Adi ShaMkara. Later commentators include BhAskara, YAdavaprakAsha, RAmAnuja, Keshava, Neelakantha, Madhva, Baladeva, Vallabha, Vijnana Bhikshu, VAcaspati and PadmapAda. Among all these, and other commentaries, ShaMkara's commentary is considered as an exemplary model of how a commentary should be written, and most commentators are influenced by it, even when they disagree with ShaMkara's interpretations.


As is well-known, there are six schools of classical Indian philosophy, namely:

·        nyAya

·        vaisheshhika

·        sAMkhya

·        yoga

·        mImAmsa

·        vedAnta

Each of these has as its authoritative source a composite text that `threads' together all of the diverse points of doctrine claimed by it. This text is called a collection of `sUtra's, pithy statements that discourse upon some specific aspect of the field -- and is the most important work relating to that doctrine, as it codifies the entire spectrum of thought encompassed by that doctrine, and serves as a point of reference for all matters of philosophical import. Quite frequently, the plural nature of the collection of sUtra-s is not made explicit, and one refers to the entire text as such-and-such a sUtra, as if it were in fact a single work. In his commentary, AnandatIrtha quotes the following verse from the padma purANa to define what `sUtra' means:

alpAxaramasa.ndigdhaM sAravadvishvatomukham.h  |
astobhamanavadyaM cha sUtraM sUtravido viduH  ||

Pithy (using fewest possible letters), unambiguous, laying out all the essential aspects of each topic, and dealing with all aspects of the question, free of repetitiveness and flaw -- those learned in the sUtra-s say that such is a sUtra.

Quite naturally, then, the author of the sUtra-s for each school occupies the highest rank among the scholars of that school, and is regarded as its founder or progenitor, and as the primary guru of all others claiming loyalty to that scholarly tradition. The authors of each school's sUtra, aptly called its sUtrakAra-s, are:

Each school has its unique aspects whereby it tries to satisfy the spiritual aspirations of its adherents. Of these, the vedAnta school concerns itself with the understanding of Brahman, the entity referred to in the VedAs and Upanishad-s, who is variously described as the Creator, the Super soul, the Supreme Self, etc. Thus, the vedAnta-sUtra of BAdarAyaNa is more commonly known as the Brahma-sUtra.

The Brahma-sUtra is the authoritative exposition of vedAnta, but it is by no means the first, and is designed to provide an objective criticism of views held by others. Indeed, BAdarAyaNa refers in that work to the views of other previous scholars such as auDulomi, kAshakR^itsna, bAdari, Ashmarathya, etc. He also makes references to jaimini, the mImAmsa scholar, accepting the latter's views in a few instances and modifying them in others. He also refers to himself by name, apparently implying that he refers to some point he has expounded in another work. As such, it is clear that the Brahma-sUtra was written at a time when the six schools in general, and vedAnta in particular, were already widely known, and discourse among their scholars had already developed to a very great degree.

There is a tradition of thought that says that all scholars named by BAdarAyaNa were in fact his own disciples and that he has immortalized them through the medium of his sUtra-s, by referring to their contributions in interpreting difficult propositions, while supporting or modifying their views in his final conclusions. After BAdarAyaNa, all scholars have accepted his authority in the final interpretation of vedAnta.

There are three kinds of vedAntic texts, called the prasthAna-traya, which are considered to be of prime importance: these are the VedAs and Upanishads, the Brahma-sUtra, and the Bhagavad-Gita.

It is possible to date the Bhagavad-Gita, and the mahAbhArata that it is part of, to a time before the advent of Buddhism. Considering that there is a specific reference to the Brahma-sUtra in the 'gItA, in verse XIII-4 of the latter work, it is possible to date the Brahma-sUtra also to a time before Buddhism. In fact, bodhAyana, a scholar dated to 400 B.C., refers to the Bhagavad-Gita and mahAbhArata. In his commentary upon the Brahma-sUtra, rAmAnuja refers to a varttika (explanatory text) by bodhAyana in which the latter shows familiarity with both the mImAmsa-sUtra and the Brahma-sUtra, and in fact considers them to be two parts of a complete exposition. Unfortunately, no copies of this varttika survive to the present day, and it is also not quoted from, by any other scholar. However, it may be presumed that the text did exist in rAmAnuja's time, and combined with the known familiarity of bodhAyana with the Bhagavad-Gita, goes to show that the Brahma-sUtra was definitely already accepted as a canonical text by his time.

A problem arises because most commentators upon the Brahma-sUtra have held that it also paradoxically refers back to the 'gItA in a few instances -- for instance, in saying `api smaryate' in sUtra-s 2.3.44 and 4.2.20; how can both works refer to each other, thus indicating that each of them was written previous to the other?

This problem may be resolved if we consider that tradition identifies BAdarAyaNa, the author of the Brahma-sUtra, with veda-vyAsa, the author of the mahAbhArata (of which the Bhagavad-Gita is a part). Although there seems to be little evidence apart from the word of tradition to back up this claim, it seems to make sense, since then the apparent paradox can be resolved; the same author could very well have written both works in any order; he could add a reference to an as-yet-unwritten text, knowing that he was going to write it, and also knowing what he was going to write in it.

It might be argued that at least one text has had spurious insertions made into it to apparently refer to the other, and that it is thus unnecessary to posit that the authors of the two are the same. However, it is not found that the various rescensions of the Brahma-sUtra are different, with some not having the questionable references; all copies of the Brahma-sUtra as obtained from a variety of sources carry them. Moreover, considering the flow of the discourse in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Brahma-sUtra, it seems very unlikely that the references are spurious insertions; they fit in well with the general background of the discussion, and do not stand out as later insertions presumably would. Thus, the hypothesis that the author of the Brahma-sUtra is also the author of the Bhagavad-Gita stands reaffirmed.

Commentaries upon the Brahma-sUtra

Owing to its importance, the Brahma-sUtra has spawned a rather large number of bhAshhya-s (commentaries), which seek to amplify BAdarAyaNa's very terse writing. Some of the more important bhAshhyakAra-s upon the Brahma-sUtra are shaMkara, rAmAnuja, AnandatIrtha, nimbAraka, vallabha, baladeva, etc. Each of these scholars has given his own interpretation of what BAdarAyaNa really means to say. Since the two entities jIva, or the individual self, and Brahman, can either be (i) identical; (ii) identical with specialty; (iii) non-identical; (iv) identical and non-identical, one has four basic schools of thought within vedAnta upholding these views.


·        The Brahma-sUtra consists of 555 or 564 individual sUtra-s, each of them, a complete discourse on a certain topic. There is a tradition that says that the Brahma-sUtra must be written with an OM at the beginning and end of each sUtra. The justification for this is said to be that since each sUtra is itself a complete discourse rather than a mere statement in a work, it has to have a shAnti-pATha at the beginning and at the end, just as with complete works like the Bhagavad-Gita or the Upanishads. However, the OMs are not considered to be part of the sUtra-s themselves, and are usually omitted from commentaries. However, they are to be retained in uncommented texts, and are also to be included when the text is recited.

·        There are some differences in the number of adhikaraNa-s (topics discussed) and sUtra-s, as accepted by various commentators. For instance, shaMkara, rAmAnuja, and AnandatIrtha have taken these as 192/555, 156/545, and 222/564 respectively. Though much of the differences arise due to their clubbing some sUtra-s together or splitting them in different ways, in some cases there are different readings altogether as each tries to obtain a total and coherent philosophical position by his own interpretation. However, the division of the entire text into four chapters -- `samanvaya', 'avirodha', `sAdhana' and `phala' is acceptable to all.

·        It is interesting to know the objective of the composition. According to AnandatIrtha and the other commentators, BAdarAyaNa condensed and classified the VedAs, which were limitless in extent and difficult to understand by persons of severely limited intellectual capacities, into small divisions and sub-divisions, so that each individual could study one part; and he composed the Brahma-sUtra-s for their correct interpretation. The very first two chapters samanvaya (integration of the diverse texts into a homogeneous total picture) and avirodha (removing all possible objections and internal contradictions) as accepted by all commentaries show this objective clearly.

·        The approach adopted by the sUtrakAra is to refer to some specific passage of the VedAs or Upanishads by a key word, context, or hint as to the topic of discussion. He then gives his own decision as to the conclusion to be reached, in one or two words, followed by the reasoning behind the conclusion. Usually, the sUtra-s are stating the conclusion without elaborating the pUrvapaksha (the extant proposition or hypothesis which is examined and rejected). The aptness of the commentary has to be judged by the correct identification of the vishhaya vAkya (the original Vedic statement referred to), consistency with the chapter, section and subject discussed previously, avoidance of wasteful or repetitive points, coherence with the system being propounded as a whole, the logical structure indicated by the sUtrakAra being shown correctly, etc. Some commentators have rather arbitrarily assigned certain sUtra-s as pUrvapaksha, although there is no indication in the sUtra-s themselves to that effect, and although this strongly militates against the notion that each sUtra is a complete exposition upon a certain subject. AnandatIrtha holds that all sUtra-s are themselves siddhAnta or conclusions, and that there are none that are not so.

·        BAdarAyaNa begins the work with `athAto BrahmajiGYAsA', to mean something like, "Then, therefore let us examine the subject of Brahman." It is not immediately obvious what is being meant by saying "then therefore." Various commentators thus set out to postulate what BAdarAyaNa's intent is in saying that, and assume backgrounds favorable to their doctrines. As a result, a significant part of the debate among various schools of vedAnta is about what is not said in the Brahma-sUtra but is implied and left unstated. Each school tries to show why its own postulation of the background is correct, and also tries to refute other schools' assumptions to the contrary. ShaMkara in particular finds it necessary to preface the main body of his sUtra-bhAshhya with his own extraneous dissertation called adhyAsabhAshhya, in which he describes at great length the unreality of both the world and the bondage of the individual. Such an act, which strongly militates against the very concept and approach of an explanatory work, attracts the charge by his opponents of his having foisted his own opinions upon the author of the Brahma-sUtra, under the pretext of explaining the latter. Even a biography of shaMkara written long after him seems to symbolize and recognize the difficulty with his approach, by stating that he had argued with BAdarAyaNa and defeated him.

·        Jaimini, the author of the mImAmsa-sUtra, is traditionally regarded as a shishhya of BAdarAyaNa. Considering that the two are seen in the mImAmsa-sUtra and the Brahma-sUtra to have apparently conflicting opinions in some cases, it would seem that Jaimini may have been an independent mImAmsaka scholar before meeting BAdarAyaNa; he presumably lost to the latter in debate and became his student, as was the common practice of the day.

[Another view: From the Book "Outlines of Indian Philosophy" by “Hiriyanna" (Motilal Banarsidas Publishers) Chapter III, "Vedanta" - Page 338-

“(H)istorically, the two treaties were probably independent with different authors Jaimini and BAdarAyaNa respectively and they were later put together with suitable emendations by someone who is described as Vyasa - "the arranger”. Upavarsa the Vrttikara seems to have commented upon them in this combined form.  The date of the original work by BAdarAyaNa is now believed to be about 400 A.D.”]

Thiruvaiyaru Krishnan

January 1, 1994