Professor Ramamurty’s book is originally a doctoral thesis for PhD from Andhra University. It was first published in 1973 and this is its reprint. The preface is dated 1973. The author taught in Viswabharati, Santiniketan before joining the University of Hyderabad. He says that “this book attempts to elaborate and clarify Sankara’s understanding of brahmanubhava, in all its aspects, relying extensively on his own writings. For this, not only the commentaries, but also the prakarana granthas have been taken into account. In the final chapter, brahmanubhava is compared with what was said about the mystic experience by two of the most authoritative exponents of Christian and Islamic mysticisms, namely St John of the Cross and Jalalu’d-Din Rumi, mainly to understand Sankara’s position without any ambiguity” (pp. v-vi). Admitting that there are some repetitions, he expresses the “hope they are not out of context” (ibid.).
Acharya Shankara’s understanding of brahmanubhava is examined through an “Introduction” followed by eight chapters: “The Point of Departure”, “Description of Brahmanubhava”, “Behaviour of a Brahmajnani”, “The Way to Brahmanubhava”, “The Place of Faith, Emotions and Reasoning in Brahmanubhava”, “The Object of Brahmanubhava”, “The Validity of Brahmanubhava”, “Empirical Experience and Brahmanubhava”, and “Comparisons and Conclusions” with a bibliography and index.
The contents of these chapters constitute the theme of the book and its “tools” of analysis. The elaboration and clarification of all these aspects of “Shankara’s understanding” is commendable. But then, can “understanding” of the other’s supreme Advaita experience interpreted through language? The one who declared in Vivekachudamani that “a network of words is like a dense forest which causes the mind to wander hither and thither”, has himself left us a legacy of prodigious commentaries and poetic compositions ranging from Saundarya-Lahari to other hymns. Unless we look at brahmanubhava as a holistic experience which informs every aspect of life, understanding Advaita exclusively is bound to reflect the paradox of “interpretation” in which one plants one’s own understanding onto the texts. Moreover, statements like “Brahman is real, the world an illusion” give rise to conundrums on the analytical level.
From this perspective, the various chapters linked to the centrality of brahmanubhava — seem to float around and not tethered to it firmly. The analyses of the three states of consciousness are not hierarchically privileged but are integrated illuminators — the one defining another. Phantoms of the brain do not explain the reality of “illusion” (maya) Once we regard it as “illusion”, the tendency will be to “suppress” what one categorises as “differences”. Prof. Ramamurty’s comments on yoga vis-à-vis Advaita, for instance, seem to sound categorical.
He says: “Instead of trying to achieve an awareness of oneness of everything with the Self or the realization that there is nothing different from the Self (Brahman), which culminates in perfect bliss and liberates the individual from ignorance, the cause of all differences, we observe in these states an attempt to suppress the experience of differences” (p. 57). If I read the context rightly, it is about yoga which the author brands as “a negative approach” because of this “alleged suppression of the waves of Chitta”. And about the mind, Prof. Ramamurty says: “though the mind as mind is unreal, it is not different from the Self in reality” (ibid.).
Is “the regenerate mind” that is suggested here? A more rigorous analysis of the three states of mind would have helped us. In our times “virtual realities” give us insight into realities proper, if such things exist. Hence, the significance of Shankara’s “perception” of maya.
About the behavioural patterns of the brahmanubhavi, the observation that the relative reality, if we call it vyavaharika satya, remains, is a clarification much needed in the dialectics of Advaita Vedanta. The institutionalization of Advaita peethas is itself an example. But then, the chapter on “The Place of Faith, Emotions and Reasoning” seemed to me to link brahmanubhava with the mysticism of St John of the Cross and Rumi. This portion seemed to me slender and casual. For, mysticism itself is a phenomenon which has to be understood guardedly. It has to be a nomenclature which includes more than direct experience of the Reality. If in Advaita pain and pleasure — the cluster of dualities — are functional, not fundamental, the mystic would accept both. The phenomenal world runs on the axiom: “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. This is “the grace coming from God that makes us understand him”, according to St John.
In his book Studies in Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Deconstruction R. Sundara Rajan observed that, “interpretation which starts as an attempt at understanding may develop into a questioning of that understanding itself”. This “hermeneutic subversion” could be rooted in the primordial structure of interpretation itself. This risk hovers over Prof. Ramamurty’s study. Our understanding is, in fact, a gift but not one to be used indiscriminately.
In effect, though it needs updating, Prof. Ramamurty’s volume is a welcome contribution. The specialist is made to think, the lay person passes by some inconclusive statements. In any case, it is worth reading. As an enthusiast — a general reader — I found helpful insights to come close to that colossal figure, Acharya Shankara. Perhaps, a re-reading in terms especially of Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita would have been helpful.